Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 10

Reopening the Josephus Question


Contrasting Worlds

In an alternate universe to this one, scholars investigating Christianity’s origins are a happy lot. There, the man whom 2000 years of Christian tradition places at the genesis of the movement enjoys ample attestation. There, the five canonical Gospels may be filled with much legendary and theological accretion, and the indefatigable Paulus may have been guilty of bringing too much hellenistic hocus-pocus to his interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, but the assortment of Christian correspondence preserved from the movement’s first century is filled with teachings attributed to the beloved Master, with cherished memories of the events of his life and death. There, letters written by early believers speak of reverent visits to the site of Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice, of pilgrimages to the tomb where he rose from the dead, even if these had to be carried out in clandestine fashion.

In that alternate world, early Christian letter writers also have the occasional word to say about the Roman governor who was responsible for their Lord’s crucifixion, about the privileged and respected Jewish mother of their incarnated Son of God, about the ascetic prophet who had preceded him and even baptized him, so tradition had it. And the relations between those many apostles of the Christ, who discuss and argue and vilify across the pages of the early Christian epistles, are characterized by regular claims and counterclaims about the authority Jesus had bestowed upon them while on earth, or the channels through which they could trace their credentials and their doctrines back to the man himself who had set everything in motion.

When scholars in that alternate universe step outside the writings of the Christian movement itself, they find that widespread notice was taken of the new faith and its founder by the contemporary world. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo had mentioned his death under Pilate in speaking of the Roman governor’s reprehensible career in Judea. Pliny the Elder, who collected all manner of natural and unnatural phenomena associated with famous figures and sects, had recorded certain traditions—probably apocryphal, but no matter—about astronomical portents which Christians said had accompanied their founder’s birth, as well as an amazing reaction of nature reputed to have taken place at the time of his death. This chronicler’s nephew, Pliny the Younger, had related Christian tales about the man and his exploits in his letter to the emperor. And other assorted commentators of the time had given passing mention or even a few valuable details about the man of Nazareth and the impact he had made, both among his many followers and throughout contemporary society as the new sect spread and made its presence felt.

Even in that contented place, however, there is the occasional sticking point. The works of the foremost Jewish historian of the time, Flavius Josephus, happen to contain two references to things Christian which are in dispute, since one as it stands is obviously a Christian composition, and the other possesses certain problematic aspects. Scholars there are faced with the question of whether in fact this particular historian did record anything about the Christian movement and its founder, or perhaps was even unfamiliar with him, though this they regard as unlikely in view of the clear and widespread witness given to Jesus in many other contemporary records. Word has it that one scholar in that alternate world went so far as to raise the possibility that, in view of the uncertainty in the Josephan record, the founder of Christianity may not have existed, but he was promptly carted off to an institution where they have effective treatments for such delusionary manifestations.


In a different universe to that one, scholars are not so fortunate, or so happy. There, the canonical Gospels are also seen as possessing questionable historical reliability, built as they are on midrashic principles which seem to draw entirely on scriptural precedent. In that world, however, scholars cannot turn to the early Christian record outside the Gospels for information on Jesus of Nazareth, for strangely enough it contains virtually nothing about the reputed human founder of Christianity. In the New Testament epistles they can discover no attribution of earthly teachings to him, no miracle working, no details of his life and death. The places of his career are never mentioned, let alone visited; the figures populating the Gospel story seem unknown. Rival apostles of the Christ preach and debate and express themselves without any appeal to an earthly Jesus, and speak of the beginning of their movement and their knowledge of the Son of God they worship in terms of revelation and inspiration from scripture, with God himself as the source of their ethic and impulse. Their Christ is a cosmic redeemer unlinked to a recent historical man, one who bears uncanny resemblance to a raft of mythical savior gods of the time. Within the non-Christian record, the silence on any human founder of Christianity echoes forlornly for almost the first hundred years of the movement.

With one exception. In that world too, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus exhibits two contentious passages referring to a human Jesus. One is a Christian composition as it now stands, and the other is problematic in certain respects. Did this Flavius Josephus really record anything about the Christian founder? Was he perhaps unfamiliar with him? The difference between this universe and the other one is that here much more hangs in the balance. For in the absence of any other supporting evidence from the first century that in fact the Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels clearly existed, Josephus becomes the slender thread by which such an assumption hangs. And the sound and fury and desperate maneuverings which surround the dissection of those two little passages becomes a din of astonishing proportions. About the only advantage which scholars in this universe enjoy over their counterparts in the other, is that dissenters to the accepted picture of Christianity’s origins are here somewhat more numerous and are able to resist commitment to curative asylums.

Setting the Parameters

The second, unfortunate, universe is of course our own, and I think it is not too difficult to understand why Josephus has become such a flash point in the great debate over the existence of any historical Jesus. And yet, he shouldn’t be, for two very good reasons. The very fact that so much bitter debate has taken place for so long, so much ink spilled, over those two contentious passages, shows how difficult if not impossible it has been to settle the matter conclusively, as to what, if anything, Josephus actually said about a Christian founder Jesus. The second reason should be equally obvious. The obsessive focus on this one uncertain record is necessitated by the fact that the rest of the evidence is so dismal, so contrary to the orthodox picture. If almost everything outside Josephus points in a different direction, to the essential fiction of the Gospel picture and its central figure, how can Josephus be made to bear on his shoulders, through two passages whose reliability has thus far remained unsettled, the counterweight to all this other negative evidence?

I will make clear at the outset what for me is the overriding principle in this debate. As those who have investigated my site will know, I have claimed that an analysis of the non-Gospel record, Christian and non-Christian, both in terms of the negative (the silences found therein) and the positive (what early writers specifically say about their Christ and faith movement), when separated from Gospel preconceptions, strongly supports the validity of doubting the existence of any historical Jesus.

If this be the case, then all that would have to be done where Josephus is concerned is to demonstrate the inconclusiveness of his passages about Jesus, to show that their reliability cannot be certain, or even made probable. If the ‘non-existence’ side of the scale in the historical Jesus debate is so weighted down with supporting indications, then anything short of a fairly conclusive demonstration that Josephus is reliable cannot serve to counterbalance that weight, much less ‘prove’ the existence of an historical Jesus. This seems a permissible and logical position to take.

That said, however, I am going to suggest that in this article I will offer, along with some fresh arguing of familiar positions, several new analyses and arguments which are nothing short of fatal to the currently complacent view that the Josephan passages, even in a core fashion, are essentially reliable and can be used to support the contention that Jesus existed.

In historical investigation few things, if any, are “proven.” Rather, we try to arrive at probabilities based on the weight of evidence, usually by examining the documentary (or archaeological) record and subjecting it to various forms of reasoning. Indeed, the regular debate on Josephus is full of arguments which look at the text, consider certain factors in relation to it, and commend a conclusion to the observer. “It makes sense that . . .” or “It is unlikely that . . .” is a common approach in presenting one’s position. If I as a mythicist can demonstrate that my arguments for Josephus’ unreliability can stand with equal or better force beside those of my opponents, or if I can demonstrate the weakness or invalidity of those opposing arguments, I have accomplished my task. That task is to remove the force of the two Antiquities passages as an impediment to the mythicist position, which is based on an analysis of the documents which really matter: the Christian documentary record itself, in the epistles which demonstrate what early Christianity was in fact about, and the Gospels as they can be demonstrated not to constitute works of history.

Many professional scholars in books and commentaries have addressed the Josephus question, but it is also a favorite topic among researchers on the Internet. The most extensive discussion in this category which I am aware of is by Peter Kirby on his Early Christian Writings web site (URL/link at end), who supports the basic reliability of Josephus as a witness to the historical Jesus; and although I will refer to others along the way who have tackled the question, I will use his essay as a general guide for my own remarks—especially as he has urged me to do so.


Here is an overview Index of the numbered headings in the text, with links to each:

II: Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews 20

III: Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews 18


Manuscript Attestation

1. Absence of textual variation irrelevant - It is becoming increasingly common in a discussion of the Josephan passages to deal first with Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1 (20:200 in the alternate numbering system), since it is often used to support the likelihood of there having been an “original” Testimonium Flavianum which can be distilled from the obvious Christian paragraph in Antiquities 18.3.3. And it is becoming increasingly common, it seems, to label the reference to Jesus in 20.9.1 as “generally undisputed” or “certain,” as Kirby does.

One of the arguments made is that this passage is present in all the extant manuscripts. However, our Greek manuscripts date from no earlier than the 10th century, and we do not have a manuscript tradition as rich as that of the New Testament where comparison of texts and their families can reach back into the 3rd century. It is true that we have a direct quotation of the Antiquities 20 passage by the church historian Eusebius who wrote in the early 4th century, and it does not essentially vary from the extant one. But this is still over two centuries from the composition of the Antiquities, leaving more than sufficient time and scope for emendation to have taken place in some quarters.

As to the non-survival of variants showing differences in the passage under discussion, something often appealed to, it is virtually an axiom in textual criticism that where widely-known passages in a given writer, or passages common to different works, are concerned, scribes will often gravitate toward a common expression, to bring one copy into line with another. That is, a reference or turn of phrase may be changed to reflect the version that is most widely familiar (e.g., a change of some of the teachings in the Didache’s “Two Ways” section to agree with the wording in Jesus’ mouth found in Matthew), and this can extend to the very presence of such elements. This would particularly apply to the two passages in Josephus, since in Christian hands, those references to Jesus would not only have become universally known, they would have constituted the principal raison d’etre for Christians continuing to show any interest in Josephus at all. In fact, it would be amazing to discover a manuscript which did not contain those passages more or less as we now have them (unless literally unearthed from some early time). One can be quite certain that long before the 10th century no manuscript of the Antiquities worked on by a Christian could fail to contain the phrase “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ” in connection with James in 20.9.1.

The same would be true of the Testimonium Flavianum in chapter 18, even if the latter, being longer and with more elements, occasionally exhibits some small variance. The enlargement in the Old Russian (Slavonic) version is a separate matter.

Thus the lack of significant textual variation in surviving manuscripts, much less of a missing element, is virtually meaningless and cannot be used to prove anything.

Here, then, is the Antiquities 20.9.1 passage containing the reference to Jesus (in bold), as it stands (essentially) in all extant copies, including in Eusebius’ quote of it:

The Brother of Jesus, the One Called (the) Christ

2. Did Josephus identify James by the “brother of Jesus” reference? - It is commonly argued that Josephus likes to identify for the reader’s sake a freshly introduced figure by some sort of explanatory description. This is his first (and only) reference to James, and thus the identification of Jesus as his brother serves this purpose. There are a number of potential flaws in this position.

Even if the observation about Josephus’ habit is valid, this does not reveal what Josephus may originally have written to identify James. (In a moment I will detail what may be a couple of possibilities.) There is no “certainty” that the identifying phrase as it stands now must have come from Josephus’ pen, for he may have described James by some other reference which was subsequently changed by a Christian copyist. That the latter was the case is suggested by the fact that the second part of the extant phrase is suspiciously identical to the one which concludes Matthew 1:16 (ho legomenos Christos: the one called (the) Christ, though the Josephan phrase is in an oblique case: tou legomenou Christou). The same phrase also appears in John 4:25.

Even in the face of this match in Matthew and John, it is often claimed that the phrase is “not Christian” because it is not found anywhere else in Christian writings. This observation does not change the fact that it does appear at least twice, including in the most popular and widely known Gospel of all from the mid-second century on, and could thus have exerted an influence on a Christian copyist inserting a phrase into Josephus. Kirby’s suggestion that as Matthew was a Jewish-Christian, the phrase can only be assigned to someone with a strong Jewish identity (ergo: Josephus), thus ruling out most Christian scribes of the latter second century or after, is hardly conclusive or even logically compelling. There could be any number of reasons why it only appears in Matthew (and John), but these appearances identify it as permissibly Christian, even if relatively rare. By extension, so is its match in Antiquities 20. The authenticity of the phrase in Josephus consequently becomes less than reliable on these grounds alone.

Kirby points out that references to Jesus by Christians such as Paul are overwhelmingly of the sort which use the term “Christ” as a proper name, never as part of “him called Christ.” Naturally so, since Paul speaking of his savior god in heaven (one of whose appellations was “Christ,” Greek for Messiah) would scarcely have had any reason to use such a phrase. Such a phrase, in fact, could only appear in the context of referring to an historical man, and probably only in the context of making a declaration that he had been the Messiah. So it is hardly surprising that Christian parlance would tend not to show much usage of it, especially if there were no concept of an historical Jesus on the wider scene until some time into the second century. As for its appearance in Matthew, it comes at the end of the long genealogy the evangelist provides for Jesus, and aside from its perorational value it conveys the quality of a declaration that this descendant of a line of distinguished ancestors going back through David to Abraham was the prophesied Messiah. (I’ll pick up on this “Matthean quality” a little later in connection with the Antiquities 20 usage.)

Incidentally, the frequent translation (including by Kirby) of “tou legomenou Christou” in Antiquities 20 as “the so-called Christ,” with its skeptical and derogatory overtone, is in no way necessary, even if possible, and is in fact belied by the usage of the same phrase in Matthew and John where it obviously cannot have such a connotation. Those using the term in their translations betray a preconceived bias in favor of Josephan authorship.

3. What did Josephus know, or choose to say, about James? - If we are not to beg the question itself, we must ask: if, for the sake of argument, one postulates that Jesus did not exist, could not Josephus have identified his James in some other way? (The question could be asked even outside the context of the historical Jesus debate.) It cannot be ruled out a priori that he would have had no way of doing so, for he may have had some other nugget of information available to him. It may even be possible that he offered no descriptive identification for James at all, an option I’ll look at in a moment.

If Josephus did use some other phrase, one having no connection to Jesus, let’s say, it is entirely within the realm of possibility—even probability—that, given Christian practices of emendation evidenced in their own documentary record, a copyist would have felt Josephus’ original identification inadequate or even undesirable, and thus substituted a phrase of his own, namely the one we see today.

Let me deal here with a point often voiced against this possibility: that such an insertion would have been much longer, since a Christian scribe would have taken the opportunity to say much more about Jesus. This is not a compelling argument. Even a naive copyist would have recognized the limitations he faced. In a tightly-packed account of James’ death and its repercussions on Ananus, there would have been no scope for an extended digression about Jesus. It would have destroyed the passage. And if the copyist had a short original phrase in front of him, his tendency might well have been to replace it with one of more or less equal length. Once again, an argument in favor of authenticity is rendered inconclusive or invalid.

But something else could have happened, other than the replacement of a different original phrase. Josephus may have liked as a rule to provide a little description for a new character, but suppose that here he chose not to because he felt it unnecessary, or perhaps was unable to do so because he knew so little about the man? Could either of these alternatives be possible, and might they be suggested by the evidence itself?

The possibility that Josephus knew virtually nothing else about James is suggested by the fact that he never tells us anything (outside the disputed phrase) beyond the fact and basic manner of his death. (Note the difference between this and the long, detailed—and somewhat contradictory—account in Hegesippus preserved by Eusebius!) Josephus does not even attach the common cognomen “the Just” to James, something which a Christian copyist would have felt no necessity to remove. (Yes, the fact that the postulated interpolator did not himself insert James’ common nickname, which presumably would have been known to him, could perhaps be appealed to by dissenters. But it’s a minor point, and might be explained by saying that the words used of James by Josephus—see next—wouldn’t have accommodated sticking in “the Just” too well.)

If Josephus did know nothing more, then he would have been forced to introduce James with no identifying enlargement. He would have used some equivalent to “a certain James” or “someone named James.” Now, what in fact do we find in the Greek? The actual words referring directly to James are: Iakobos onoma autoi. Translations render this “James by name” or “whose name was James” or “a man named James” (the last by Crossan). But such a phrase, or something close to it, could have stood perfectly well on its own (with a slight change in form), and had the reference to a brother Jesus added to it by a Christian interpolator. Let’s try such an original on for size:

Not only does this make good sense, it does not jar within the context of the passage. It would hardly have offended Josephus’ own or his readers’ sensibilities. The passage is not about James (much less about Jesus). It is about the high priest Ananus and his fate. Ananus was deposed because he had executed “a man named James and certain others,” an act which incensed some of the moderates among the influential Jews. The reader didn’t have to know anything further about those who had been stoned, especially if Josephus couldn’t provide it. Or, Josephus may have known something more about this James, but chose not to insert such information into an already loaded passage because he didn’t think that his readers needed to be given that information. Remember that he is primarily writing for a gentile audience who would not have required a detailed picture of every minor character they met along the way.

Another suspicious aspect of the attached reference to Jesus is that it comes first in the text, that is, the passage reads: “(Ananus) brought before them the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ, James by name, together with some others . . .” Now why would Josephus think to place the Jesus idea before the James one? That would be a bit of a jar for the reader. He may be minor, but James is the character that brought about Ananus’ downfall and should be foremost in Josephus’ mind at this point. It seems much more natural that he would have said something like: “(Ananus) brought before them a man named James, who was the brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ . . .” In this case, the identifying phrase is added as a descriptive afterthought. On the other hand, if the phrase is the product of a Christian scribe, it is understandable that he, consciously or unconsciously, would have given the reference to Jesus pride of place. The point cannot be too vigorously pressed, but it is another dram of weight to be added to the scale.

The several aspects of this line of argument make it impossible to claim with any conclusiveness or even probability that Josephus “must” have provided a description for James and that it was the phrase we now find there.

4. Would Josephus have identified Jesus by “the one called (the) Christ”? - Another problem associated with the general scholarly assumption about Antiquities 20 is the question of whether Josephus would have chosen to identify Jesus by the phrase now found there. (We really have a double identification here: one for James—that he is Jesus’ brother, the second for Jesus—that he’s the one called the Christ.) But would Josephus have been likely to offer the latter phrase? There are difficulties in assuming that he did.

First of all, scholars get themselves into a contradiction when they claim that the reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20 indicates that Josephus must have referred to him earlier. If so, his use of the phrase “the one called (the) Christ” would imply that the point about the Christ was included in that earlier reference; yet, as we shall see, the very phrase in Antiquities 18 which contains it has been rejected as a later Christian insertion into the Josephan original, since it is so blatantly Christian. Thus Josephus would be alluding to something he hadn’t said. And his readers might have been left wondering what he was talking about. (I’ll come back to this problem when discussing Antiquities 18.)

This objection can be broadened, however. The Jewish Messiah concept (“Christ” in Greek) would not necessarily be a subject with which Josephus’ readers were all that familiar. If Josephus were going to introduce the term, one would expect him to feel constrained to provide a discussion of it somewhere. In fact, the Messiah idea was such a dramatic one, that if one of his characters had actually been designated as such by his followers, Josephus could hardly have avoided addressing this unusual man and episode at some length.

Yet curiously enough, the whole Jewish tradition of messianic expectation is a subject Josephus seems to avoid, for he nowhere directly describes it, not even in connection with the rebellious groups and agitators in the period prior to the Jewish War. (His one clear reference to the messianic “oracles” of the Jews, the object of whom, he claims, was Vespasian [Jewish War 6.5.4], is dealt with in very cursory fashion.) This silence and this reluctance (if it be so) would seem to preclude the likelihood that he would introduce the subject at all, especially as a simple aside, in connection with Jesus.

Moreover, if he is merely looking for some quick way to identify this Jesus for his readers (one of many by that name in his chronicle), he has a much easier, and less charged, way to do so. He simply has to say, “the one who was crucified by Pilate.” This is a point which supposedly did appear in the “original” passage of Antiquities 18 postulated by scholars, one that would have been easily remembered by the reader. If in fact Josephus had written the “authentic” Testimonium, with no reference to the Christ, the point about Pilate would have been the automatic choice. (This ignores, of course, the consideration that no such crucifixion by Pilate actually took place.)

5. Was the reference to Jesus a marginal gloss? - If it is a legitimate possibility that Josephus had no phrase where the present one now stands—a possibility I am increasingly leaning toward—what can we say about the suggestion by G. A. Wells (and others) that the “Jesus” phrase is simply a marginal gloss? Despite the scorn which Kirby and others have heaped on Wells for suggesting it, the idea is anything but ludicrous. The mere physical shape and character of the phrase would fit perfectly well with a notation in the margin which an early copyist could have made to supply the identification which Josephus lacked, a copyist who was bothered by the fact that the historian had made no such link. Following the usual process, the margin notation would then have gotten transferred into the book at a later time.

As to the content of the phrase, who knows why the interpolator may have chosen to echo Matthew 1:16? Perhaps for the same reason that Matthew used words which had the effect of declaring Jesus to have been the Messiah. The scribe may have been expressing his own affirmation of personal faith, especially in the face of Josephus’ insolent disregard of Jesus altogether. He may have been working the previous day on transcribing that first chapter of the Gospel. Perhaps he had a personal preference for the Matthean turn of phrase—who knows? We lose sight of the fact that so much in history, big and small, depends not on the larger, formalized issues as we see them from a distance (or have constructed them), but on nitty-gritty, mundane circumstances—such as Napoleon not getting the battle of Waterloo off to a timely start because of a ‘personal discomfort’ problem related to sitting on his horse. Such things cannot be dismissed or overlooked simply because they offend our desire for neatness and consequentiality.

(However, the marginal gloss option may prove unnecessary when I come to consider the case of the “lost reference” to James.)

6. Did Josephus refer to James as “brother of the Lord”? - There is another possibility which I alluded to earlier, that Josephus did in fact have a phrase identifying James: namely, the same as the one used by Paul in Galatians 1:19, “brother of the Lord.” I have in several places suggested—as have others before me—that the phrase did not, in Paul’s mind, refer to James as the sibling of an historical Jesus. Rather, it constituted a kind of title attached to James as the most prominent figure, perhaps the head, of a Jewish “brotherhood” of apostles of the spiritual Christ, located in Jerusalem, the one referred to in 1 Corinthians 9 and 15. As a sect they may have been known as “brothers of the Lord” (as suggested by 1 Cor. 9:5 and even by the slight variant in Philippians 1:14), with a special designation of James as the “brother of the Lord.”

I will not repeat here my arguments for (a) the legitimate interpretation of “brother” in the sense of “brethren” and (b) the supporting evidence in the ascriptions to the (pseudonymous) epistles of James and Jude that early Christians knew of no such sibling relationship of James to their cultic Christ. (See my response to Sean.)

There is nothing unusual, despite Kirby’s protestations, in an individual or a sect referring to itself as “brother(s) of the Lord” in reference to a deity. Indeed, the phrase may originally have referred to God the Father, and if so, then Josephus may himself have known of this phrase associated with James, and understood it with the meaning of “God” when attaching it to him in Antiquities 20. It would have required no further comment on his part, let alone some explanatory passage here or elsewhere, talking about who this “Lord” was. Over half a century later, as Eusebius’ quote of Hegesippus indicates, Christians understood the phrase (and others like it) to refer to the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth and to presumed family relationships to him, but this is much later than the time of Josephus, when an historical Jesus was well established.

More of a problem arises, perhaps, when one considers how and why this possible designation in Antiquities 20 was changed to the one witnessed by Origen and all later copies: from “brother of the Lord” to “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ.” Kirby has suggested that there would have been no reason for a scribe to tamper with this passage, since the phrase was now understood with the sibling meaning. Kirby asks: “Who would want to change ‘Lord’ to ‘Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah’?” and he notes that the former phrase has survived in Galatians 1:19 completely intact. As for the latter objection, this is an entirely different matter. A Christian document, especially one by Paul, hardly needs amending on a point like this for an exclusively Christian readership. But where the historical works of a non-Christian historian were concerned, Christian copyists may have felt otherwise, and regarded “brother of the Lord” as an inadequate identification of the new historical Jesus for the general reader.

But it’s a sticky point, I admit. And overall, I am less inclined now than when I first made the suggestion a few years ago, to consider that this is the route by which “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ” entered Antiquities 20. The proposition that Josephus, knowing next to nothing about James or choosing not to elaborate on him, simply made no designation for him beyond a phrase like “one named James” seems more likely to me now, with the reference to Jesus being invented by a Christian and inserted into the text. But in this process, I think there was another factor involved, and this brings me to the so-called “lost reference,” as styled by Kirby.

The “Lost Reference” to James and Jesus

7. James as the cause of the fall of Jerusalem - In Origen three times and in Eusebius once, there appears the statement that Josephus believed that the calamity of the Jewish War (66-70) was visited upon the Jews by God because of their murder of James the Just. This murder is recounted by Josephus in Antiquities 20.9.1, where the phrase “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ” is attached to James. But in that passage, as the reader may remember, the idea of a causal link between James’ death and the fall of Jerusalem does not appear, nor does it appear anywhere else in our extant copies of Josephus. From Origen, it would be possible to conclude that the idea was once there in Antiquities 20 and has since been removed, or that it appeared somewhere else in Josephus and was removed or disappeared from that other spot.

Peter Kirby claims that this lost reference to James “has been almost universally ignored by critics,” but this is not quite true. Others have noted it (e.g., Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18), though in less prominent and detailed a fashion. Robert Eisenman also deals with it in his recent book James, the Brother of Jesus (p.234f). But I seem to remember someone like Karl Kautsky making the assumption that when Origen referred to the link between James’ death and the fall of Jerusalem, he was drawing on a statement he found in his copy of Antiquities 20.9.1, thus proving that this passage had been tampered with. (S. Brandon seems to make the same assumption, in The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, p.52 and 111f.) Wells deals with the ‘lost reference’ correctly in his first book, The Jesus of the Early Christians, p.193-4, but in too condensed a fashion, I think, which may be lost on the uninitiated reader.

The Kautsky assumption is almost certainly erroneous. Both Eisenman and Kirby point out that in the three passages in which Origen refers to the link between James’ death and the fall of Jerusalem (Commentary on Matthew 10:17, Contra Celsum 1:47 & 2:13), he is not making a direct quotation of Josephus’ words, nor does he point to a specific location; only in the first case does he make a passing mention of the Antiquities in general (see below). But we can be fairly sure that Origen cannot be drawing the idea from his copy of the Antiquities 20 account about James, because a quotation of that very passage in Eusebius does not show it (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.22). Here Eusebius had just talked about a reputed Jewish opinion (seemingly of the past, and not necessarily held by Jews of his own time) that the destruction of Jerusalem was caused by God’s wrath directed at them over the martyrdom of James, and he points out (ibid., 23:21) that Josephus concurred in this opinion:

Eusebius, like Origen, does not identify the location of this passage in Josephus, but he goes on (23:22f) to give his readers another quote from Josephus, this one with its location: Eusebius reproduces the full Antiquities 20.9.1 passage, which reads the same as that given earlier, and (like our extant copies) contains no reference to a causal link between James’ death and the fall of Jerusalem. From this, and from the language he uses to introduce the second quote, the inevitable conclusion is that Eusebius’ first quote is from some other passage in Josephus’ writings, one which subsequently disappeared or was removed, since no extant manuscript shows it anywhere. It is a natural and likely inference that Origen’s three-fold reference to the James-Jerusalem link is not from Antiquities 20 either, but from this same now-lost passage which Eusebius quotes. (Because of this multiple witness, and because Eusebius makes a direct quote, the suggestion that the memories of both commentators are being confused with something Hegesippus might have said in the same vein, while Josephus in fact made no such comment at all, is unlikely.)

The reference ‘in passing’ to Antiquities of the Jews in Origen’s first quote (Commentary on Matthew 10:17, which reads: “. . .that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in 20 books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why . . .”) may present a complication here, since on the surface it might suggest that Origen is drawing from Antiquities 20. But this would require assuming—perhaps as Kautsky and Brandon did—that the link between the death of James and the fall of Jerusalem was present in Origen’s copy but not in that of Eusebius (indicating Christian tampering with the former).

That may be possible, but I think it is more probable that Origen is confused about where in Josephus he had read it. Antiquities 20 dealt with the death of James, while only the lost reference brought in the link to the fall of Jerusalem as well. Origen, at least at that moment, may have thought that Antiquities 20 contained both points. The fact that he does not locate it specifically in chapter 20 or anywhere else (see the quote above) suggests that he is simply expressing a vague recollection. This is easier to postulate than to assume that the link was in Origen’s copy, but that it was removed before Eusebius quoted it or that Eusebius was using a different manuscript line which never contained it—although both options are possible.

But there is a corollary to this observation which could be very important. If Origen is lifting into his memory of Antiquities 20 a point which only appeared in the lost reference (the James-Jerusalem link), he may be dragging in something else as well which only appeared there. Eusebius’ quote shows that the phrase “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ” was present in the lost reference. Since Origen nowhere proves otherwise, the source of Origen’s three-fold mention of “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ” may be solely the lost reference, and the phrase may not have been present in the Antiquities 20 passage of Origen’s copy. Naturally, this cannot be proven, but it presents us with this situation: outside of Eusebius (who, almost a century later, quotes the passage directly from his copy of Josephus), nothing before our earliest extant manuscripts gives clear evidence of the presence of the Jesus reference in Antiquities 20.

8. What was the source of the “lost reference” idea? - Both Eisenman and Kirby speculate as to where the “lost reference” might have been. Kirby opts for Jewish War 6.5.3, following Josephus’ account of the Roman siege. Possibly so, and I won’t argue over its location. In any case, the reference is now gone. We also have to note another of its features, that it contained the phrase “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ,” identical to the extant reference in Antiquities 20.

Which brings us to a very critical consideration. Who wrote that now-lost passage? Kirby argues for the view that it is original to Josephus, namely that Josephus himself wrote:

I have to disagree with this judgment. (So, by the way, does Wells, who however spends no time arguing the question.)

Kirby points out that Hegesippus, as reported by Eusebius, witnesses to Christians of his time (mid 2nd century) holding the view that it was James’ murder which prompted God to punish the Jews. (At least the implication is there in the Eusebius quotation.) But in view of the fact that Origen railed against this view, and because Origen witnesses to the more natural view one would expect to find among Christians—that it was the killing of Jesus which was the source of God’s wrath against the Jews—Kirby suggests that the sentiment in the lost passage is a Jewish product, something which Josephus reported and concurred with. Kirby must fall back, then, on the suggestion that the Hegesippus tradition originated in an earlier Jewish one, which Christians took over.

The incongruity here should be obvious. If the tradition began with the Jews, it may be difficult to understand why Christians of Hegesippus’ time or earlier would have adopted it, given the more natural choice regarding Jesus. But we have to ask an even more telling question. If James was a prominent Christian figure (even of the so-called “Jewish-Christian” variety) and brother of a supposed subversive who had been crucified, why would non-Christian Jews tend to give him such an honor as to believe that God had wreaked upon them the greatest calamity in Jewish history simply because of his death? Moreover, this would imply that Christianity, and by extension Jesus’ own status, was supported by God. Would Jews have believed such a thing? Hardly. The proposition, therefore, makes very little sense and is virtually impossible to accept.

9. Did Christians originate the James-Jerusalem link? - Before going on to the central question of whether Josephus himself would have subscribed to and set down in writing such a sentiment, let’s see if a different origin for the idea makes better sense. Not that it arose with Jews, but rather with Christians. After all, in some sense, James was a believer in the Christ (witness 1 Cor. 15:7) and thus would not have been regarded as a mainstream Jew. Hegesippus, if we can interpret him properly through Eusebius, witnesses to an actual Christian acceptance that the destruction of Jerusalem resulted from the death of James. It is thus more likely that James was regarded with esteem in certain Christian circles, and that they themselves developed the tradition that the Jews suffered on account of James. The dynamic here makes more sense, too, in that by the 2nd century, Christianity was splitting from the synagogue, and hostility existed between the two groups. Rather than assume that Jews chose to heap this kind of condemnation on their own heads, it makes much better sense to see the Christians as “explaining” (perhaps in taunting tones) that the Jews’ calamity was their own fault, because they had murdered James the Just. Indeed, the lost reference has suggestions of this taunting tone, as I’ll go into in a moment.

First, however, we must address the apparent problem associated with my suggestion. As alluded to above, would not Christians have tended, in seeking to taunt the Jews and explain to them why their city had been destroyed, to seize on the crucifixion of Jesus—as Origen demonstrates? One explanation, however, solves the problem. The need to interpret the destruction of Jerusalem would likely have developed early, long before Hegesippus. At such a time, an historical Jesus and historical crucifixion had not yet been invented, or at least would not have been widely disseminated beyond a few early Gospel communities, and thus the idea would not have existed in the broader Christian world. Instead, James the Just, head of a prominent sect in Jerusalem which believed in a spiritual Christ, murdered by the Jewish high priest just before the War, would have been the natural, and perhaps only candidate available. And although the idea of an historical Jesus was well under way by Hegesippus’ time, the force of the original tradition about James’ death could still be operating, to be supplanted by the concept of Jesus’ role only later, perhaps around the time Origen is expressing his dissenting opinion in the early 3rd century.

10. Could Josephus have written the James-Jerusalem link? - Can we really entertain the possibility that the lost reference is from the pen of Josephus? First of all, the tone of the passage has a faintly taunting quality about it, certainly an uncompromisingly critical one. Josephus is quite capable of condemning certain elements on the Jewish pre-War scene, such as the Zealots, but no such nuanced analysis is present here. Calamities happened “to the Jews.” “The Jews slew him.” The latter blanket judgment would hardly be fair, and contradicts the known passage in Antiquities 20. There Josephus is quite specific in imputing responsibility for the killing of James to Ananus and the clique around him. Indeed, he highlights the anger of the Jewish “moderates” at this act. This makes the phrase “the Jews slew him” hardly in keeping with the actual event, nor with Josephus’ own recorded sentiments about it. And he would hardly envision God punishing the entire Jewish nation for a murder he himself portrays as the responsibility of an upstart high priest, one whom other Jews promptly condemned and had removed.

A second, minor, point against Josephan authorship is found in the fact that the lost reference adds “the Just” to James, whereas it is missing in the more reliable reference to James (the basic phrase) in Antiquities 20.

The same objections put forward above to the idea that Jews in general had come up with the tradition that James’ death had caused the destruction of Jerusalem apply to Josephus himself. Would Josephus have been willing to dump so heavily on the Jewish nation, as well as to accept the implication that God was on the Christian side? Is Josephus likely to have held the Christian James in such high esteem—a man linked to a troublesome sect, one who (in the view of my dissenters) had a brother who was executed? He spends only a handful of words talking about James in Antiquities 20, none of them even intimating such a concept. Had Josephus subscribed to such a tradition as is found in the lost reference, he would surely have taken the time somewhere to give his readers a fuller, more laudatory account of the man over whom God destroyed the Jewish state and leveled his own holy Temple to the ground!

Kirby suggests that “Josephus was somewhat superstitious and liked to find mysterious causes for events. . . . Josephus was looking for causes of the calamity that befell Jerusalem, and the unjust execution of a man in 62 CE by the high priest is as good as any.”

Well, I think Josephus has given us clear evidence of what he actually saw as the cause of the calamity. The whole tenor of his writings in regard to the Jewish War is an open condemnation of the revolutionary movement which led up to it, beginning with Judas the Galilean (in 6 CE), together with the immediate machinations of the Roman governor Gessius Florus who, as Josephus presents it, deliberately enticed the nation into war. “It was in Gessius Florus’s time that the nation began to grow mad with this distemper (that is, the revolutionary movement begun with Judas) . . . and who occasioned the Jews to go wild with it by the abuse of his authority” (Antiquities 18.1.6). Earlier in 18.1.1, he condemns men like Judas, who “laid the foundations of our future miseries.” Right after an account of his third agitator of the people, an “Egyptian false prophet,” Josephus describes another “inflammation” of the “diseased body” (meaning the movement for revolt): the activities of a marauding Zealotic band agitating for rebellion against Rome. He comments, “and this till all Judea was filled with the effects of their madness. And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war” (Jewish War 2.13.6). There is no hint of any role for James’ death here or anywhere else in Josephus’ analysis of the causes of the conflagration. Nor do I think, superstitious or not, that Josephus, as a competent and sophisticated historian, would have been guilty of such a naive concept, one that involved so great an imbalance between cause and effect.

There remains yet another serious objection to the idea that Josephus wrote the lost passage. Would he, writing for gentiles under Flavian patronage, attribute the fall of Jerusalem to the motivations of the Jewish God using the Romans as a pawn for his purposes? I think it would have cost him his privileged position to so belittle Roman and Flavian control over events. Thus, it is more likely that Josephus would have viewed the matter as his sponsors did: that Jerusalem fell because the Romans had decided the Judean problem had to be solved, the revolutionary movement crushed. The destruction of the Jewish state was an expression of Roman might and invincibility, and the inevitability of Rome’s ruling position in the world. Josephus, in Jewish War 3.5.8, declares that one of his purposes in writing is “to deter others who may be tempted to revolt.” This would hardly be accomplished by saying that Jerusalem fell because of the manipulative actions of the Jewish God.

It is true that in a few places—almost all of them in the earlier work, Jewish War— Josephus expresses sentiments suggesting that the actions of the Zealots in the years leading up to the conflict, their murders and mayhem, and especially their defiling of the Temple’s purity, led God to acquiesce in the destruction of the city and Temple by the Romans as a means of purification. (These passages, as well as much else, are itemized on G. J. Goldberg’s very comprehensive and informative “Flavius Josephus” site at <>). As for the matter of the destruction of temple and city, I would offer these observations about such passages:

  1. No mention is made of James’ murder, which further supports the rejection of the lost reference as authored by Josephus.
  2. The above noted sentiments stand in some tension with those passages I quoted earlier in this section in which Josephus allocates the causes of the War to the revolutionary movement and the Romans’ reaction to it, as well as to the role of the governor Gessius Florus. However:
  3. While Josephus is concerned with justifying Roman actions and providing a lesson to the world at large—a lesson of paramount importance to his Flavian patrons—that rebellion against Rome is futile, he also, especially in the earlier work, kept his eye on his own countrymen and their interests. Thus Josephus sometimes offers comments and explanations in terms of Jewish concerns about prophecy, ritual purity and divine providence, and these explanations do not always gel with others.
From the Lost Reference to Antiquities 20

11. Was there a dual interpolation of the “brother of Jesus” reference? - We thus arrive at the impossibility of accepting the lost reference as authentic to Josephus. It has to be a Christian interpolation, now disappeared. (As to why or how, I’ll look at that shortly.) Eusebius quotes the interpolation, wherever he found it. Origen refers to it indirectly. Both are quite possibly using copies from the same manuscript family; both are working in the eastern Mediterranean. The interpolation thus predates Origen, though it does not have to predate Hegesippus since the latter is likely, as noted above, to be based on an idea developed in Christian tradition some time after the Jewish War, and not dependent on anything written in a manuscript of Josephus or anywhere else.

But we are now faced with something truly significant. This interpolated passage from a Christian hand contains the phrase: “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ,” attached to James. First, the words are thus identified as Christian, and consequently the claim already countered earlier that it is a non-Christian phrase collapses completely. But even more important: how do we relate the fact of its presence in a Christian interpolation to the presence of the identical words in Antiquities 20? As Wells suggests (ibid, p.194), just on general principle its identification as an interpolation in one spot leads to the “reasonable inference” that it is an interpolation in the other.

But let’s look at the point more closely. There are a number of theoretical possibilities:

Option 1 has inherent problems. Would a Christian copyist, interpolating an entire new passage into Jewish War, bother to dig into the Antiquities for a phrase to describe James and not simply come up with one of his own? In fact, it has been argued that the phrase “the one called (the) Christ” in Antiquities 20 is un-Christian—and even derogatory!—which is taken as evidence that it cannot be from the hand of an interpolator but must be authentic to Josephus. If this were the case, surely the Christian interpolator of the lost passage, even had he thought of it, would have tended to avoid using the Antiquities 20 phrase. If others wish to argue that the interpolator was deliberately copying Josephus’ words and style to ‘mask’ the interpolation, fine. I’d love to know that this argument is acceptable, that a Christian copyist inserting something into Josephus will deliberately try to imitate his style and vocabulary. I could certainly use that argument—and will—in connection with Antiquities 18. And the fact that the interpolator could be creative and add “the Just” to James, which he would not have found in Antiquities 20, suggests that he would have felt no compunction about putting in his own phrase rather than the ‘skeptical un-Christian’ one, and so we would not find the lost passage as it stands quoted in Eusebius. At best, this option is quite inconclusive.

Option 2 is inherently less likely, though not impossible. Again, others should find it made problematic by their claim that, being un-Christian and even derogatory, the interpolator would not have used this phrase.

That leaves option 3. Let me repeat that I find no problem in envisioning some Christian copyist coming up with this phrase for the now-lost reference (“the one called the Christ”), probably under the influence of Matthew 1:16, and to convey the same idea. Here, then, we have a perfectly feasible chain of events explaining the presence of an interpolated reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. It was put there, through process of imitation, by a Christian who simply lifted it from the lost reference, itself an earlier interpolation, probably in the Jewish War. This second insertion (the scribe is casting about for a phrase, not composing an entire passage) may have served to satisfy someone who felt that “a certain James,” or “a man named James,” especially one whom Josephus had in no way linked to Jesus of Nazareth, could not stand without enlargement. Or, if the phrase “brother of the Lord” (or some other description) had stood in Antiquities 20, the force of the earlier interpolation, perhaps triggered by the common word “brother,” could have led the copyist to replace Josephus’ designation with one considered more suitable. My preference now is to opt for the former. There is nothing so common in textual criticism as to recognize that scribes insert—perhaps beginning with a marginal gloss—clarifications and enlargements when they think such things are needed in the text. (In this particular case, since I am arguing for a process of imitation from the lost reference, the marginal gloss element would not apply.)

We might even speculate that the same scribe was responsible for both. Once he had placed the lost reference to James’ murder being responsible for the fall of Jerusalem into the one text, with its identifying link of James to Jesus, he may have felt that the other reference to James in Antiquities 20—the genuine one—should show the same identifying phrase, whether nothing stood there, or a designation like “brother of the Lord.” Perhaps he felt that Josephus would have been consistent, and so he altered the Antiquities 20 reference. But this, as I say, is impossible to tell.

Kirby ridicules the idea that a single scribe could have “sneakily inserted” the “brother of Jesus” reference into both Jewish War and Antiquities 20. But I have shown that the situation is more subtle than that. My argument hinges on the observation that it is so highly unlikely that Josephus could have authored the lost reference himself, we can safely reject the possibility that he did. Once this is accepted, everything falls into place. We must remember, too, that the insertion of the lost reference probably took place relatively soon after Josephus’ publication, no more than half a century or so, since later than that, the interpolator would have tended to reflect the replacement tradition evidenced by Origen, that it was the death of Jesus which had been responsible for the fall of Jerusalem. At such an early time, no frantic Christian scribes had to rush around inserting false passages into all the manuscripts of both works.

To judge by the common version of Origen and Eusebius (the one in Egypt, the other a little further north in Caesarea), both emendations were probably made in the east, perhaps in the latter 2nd century (or the Antiquities 20 interpolation may have been inserted a while later), to one of the few manuscript sets of Josephus that would have been circulating in Christian circles there. It is not surprising to find the chain proceeding from that dual emendation and ending up on the desks of two commentators working in the same area less than a century apart. As time went on, Christians gained control of all documentation, so that common knowledge and imitation eventually ensured that all new copies of the Antiquities would contain the now-accepted reference to James as “brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ.”

12. Losing the lost reference - The final, and somewhat perplexing, point to address in connection with Antiquities 20 and the lost reference is this: what happened to that latter passage, the interpolation which set everything in motion? Origen and Eusebius read it, and about half a century later, Jerome (in Illustrious Men 2) refers to it obliquely, but thereafter it disappears and fails to show up in any extant manuscript. Both Eisenman and Kirby suggest that it was removed, under the influence of Origen’s criticism that Josephus should have specified the death of Jesus as the cause of God’s wrath and the destruction of the city. Although the issue is not critical to my argument, I find this almost incredible.

Why would a copyist follow only half of Origen’s advice? One would think it a near certainty that in removing the offending link with James, he would have replaced it with the new, preferred link to Jesus. We would then find the lost reference in our manuscripts of the Jewish War, but expressing the view that “these things happened to the Jews to avenge the crucifixion of Jesus.” In any case, Jerome witnesses to the lost reference’s continued existence into the latter 4th century (though he, too, was working in the east). By then, many copies of Josephus would presumably be circulating, including in Latin, and copyists would face a monumental problem in removing the lost reference from all of them. Would the process of imitation have worked as efficiently where a deletion is concerned? At the very least, surely somebody somewhere along the line would have chosen the option to change instead of delete. Thus it would seem that there are too many difficulties involved in the proposition put forward by Eisenman and Kirby.

My own guess would be that, because the lost reference was an interpolation to begin with, it found its way only into certain manuscript lines which eventually died out. Why then, the reader might ask, did the lost reference die out, but not its “imitation” in Antiquities 20? The problem may not, in principle, be so difficult. If the lost reference was in only some copies of Jewish War, then its disappearance would be part of the transmission history (an eventually defunct one) which certain manuscript lines of that work underwent. Once the phrase about Jesus, copying the one placed in Jewish War, was inserted into the passage in Antiquities 20, it would have undergone its own fate, in this case surviving and spreading westward through imitative transmission, part of the manuscript history of a different document. It’s a difficult problem on either side of the debate, but we cannot hope to uncover the intricacies of manuscript transmission in a case like this over a period of several centuries, especially when we have no extant copies from that period. But as I say, the issue is not critical to my argument.


Here in summary (following the numbered headings in the text) is the argument thus far, relating to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1:

1. Absence of textual variation irrelevant - The practice of imitation and Christian interests operating before the earliest extant manuscripts of the 10th century would ensure that all copies show the two references to Jesus.

2. Did Josephus identify James by the “brother of Jesus” reference? - The reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20 could be Christian, since it echoes the phrase in Matthew 1:16 and John 4:25. The argument that this is not a Christian mode of expression is weak.

3. What did Josephus know, or choose to say, about James? - Josephus may have used some other piece of information to identify Jesus, or he may have said something like “a certain James by name” (which the present wording would suggest), perhaps because he knew next to nothing about James or chose not to elaborate. Either way, a dissatisfied copyist would have inserted the present reference, not making a longer one because of space and content considerations. The order of ideas, Jesus first, James second, is suspicious.

4. Would Josephus have identified Jesus by “the one called (the) Christ”? - The Antiquities 20 phrase implies an earlier reference to “the Christ,” but scholars reject the one in Antiquities 18 as an insertion. Any “Christ” reference would require treatment of the Jewish Messiah tradition, but Josephus gives none and seems to avoid the subject entirely. He should have preferred to identify Jesus by referring to his crucifixion by Pilate.

5. Was the reference to Jesus a marginal gloss? - In the absence of any descriptive phrase for James, a marginal gloss would have been natural, and the phrase referring to Jesus has that shape and character. The copyist might have mimicked Matthew 1:16 as an affirmation that Jesus had been the Messiah. (A marginal gloss may be superfluous in view of No. 9.)

6. Did Josephus refer to James as “brother of the Lord”? - Josephus may originally have referred to James as “brother of the Lord,” as Paul does in Galatians 1:19, this perhaps being a widely-used cognomen of James as head of the Jerusalem brotherhood, one Josephus may have been familiar with and even understood as referring to God. Being in a non-Christian work, it may have been changed to reflect the new historical reality of Jesus with a more general audience in mind. (This is no longer my preferred option.)

7. James as the cause of the fall of Jerusalem - The “lost reference” to James’ death as the cause of the fall of Jerusalem contained the identical phrase about Jesus that we have in Antiquities 20. This may have been the source of Origen’s “brother of Jesus” phrase and not Antiquities 20, leaving only Eusebius is a witness to it before our extant manuscripts.

8. What was the source of the “lost reference” idea? - The James-Jerusalem link is almost impossible to accept as a Jewish product, since James was a Christian and it would imply that Christianity was supported by God; nor would Jews have been likely to heap that kind of condemnation on themselves. Eusebius’ report that Jews believed this does not seem to refer to his own time, and would be unreliable for an earlier period.

9. Did Christians originate the James-Jerusalem link? - Instead, it makes better sense that Christians originated it, as a (perhaps taunting) explanation for the Jews’ misfortune. They could choose James’ death rather than Jesus’ crucifixion because the idea of an historical Jesus had not yet developed.

10. Could Josephus have written the James-Jerusalem link? - The idea contradicts Josephus’ own account of James’ death, and would have impelled much fuller treatment of James had he caused such a dramatic effect. Throughout his writings, Josephus identifies the causes of the Jewish War as the revolutionary movement and the actions of the governor Florus. For his gentile readers, he would have been unlikely to portray the Romans and his patron Flavians as pawns in the Jewish God’s retributive purposes.

11. Was there a dual interpolation of the “brother of Jesus” reference? - If the lost reference, with its “brother of Jesus” phrase is necessarily a Christian insertion, this increases the likelihood that the phrase in Antiquities 20 is an insertion as well. The best postulation is a process of imitation from the lost reference to Antiquities 20. (And see No. 3 above.)

12. Losing the lost reference - Rather than removal, I suggest that the manuscript lines which contained the lost reference died out, while other lines never had it.

The final argument against the authenticity of Antiquities 20 will have to wait until the authenticity of Antiquities 18 has been addressed, but if the reliability of an original core to the Testimonium Flavianum can be seriously undermined, or even rejected, the reliability of the reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20 must collapse with it.

[For later use: link to summary arguments relating to Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3.]



The “Testimonium Flavianum”

One of the main arguments used to support an original reference to Jesus behind the obvious Christian paragraph which now stands in Antiquities 18:3:3 (18:63f in the alternate numbering system) is the assumed reliability of the passing reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. Josephus, so the claim goes, would not have inserted such a skeletal reference to Jesus, the one identifying James as his brother, if he had not given the reader some fuller account of him at some previous point. The throwaway line, it is said, implies some previous reference. I think I have sufficiently undercut the force of that argument by demonstrating that the Antiquities 20 reference cannot be judged reliable at all, much less “undisputed.” This leaves Antiquities 18.3.3 to stand or fall on its own merits.

Now, it is a curious fact that older generations of scholars had no trouble dismissing this entire passage as a Christian construction. Charles Guignebert, for example, in his Jesus (ET 1956, p.17, originally published 1933), calls it “a pure Christian forgery.” Before him, Lardner, Harnack and Schurer, along with others, declared it entirely spurious. Today, most serious scholars have decided the passage is a mix: original parts rubbing shoulders with later Christian additions.

Here is the famous passage—known as the “Testimonium Flavianum”—in full, with the widely-regarded additions in bold, though there is some variation on this among scholars (such as whether the phrase in square brackets ought to be regarded as authentic):

It is obvious to all that Josephus would never have said that Jesus “was the Messiah,” or that “he appeared alive to them again on the third day,” since this would mean he subscribed to Christian doctrine. And “if one ought to call him a man” is clearly a Christian reverential remark. Opinion is mixed about the ‘teacher of the truth’ reference (though Kirby and some of the authorities he draws on, such as John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, accept it). Some have suggested that instead of the blatant “he was the Messiah,” Josephus may have written that “he was believed to be the Messiah.” I will not trouble to repeat the obvious arguments against the authenticity of the blatantly Christian phrases, or their existence much before Eusebius, who in the early 4th century quotes the passage in full in his Ecclesiastical History (1.11.7). The silence of all Christian commentators before him about such things (indeed about the entire Testimonium) is clear evidence of this. Some have even suggested that Eusebius himself was the interpolator.

This breakdown of authentic and inauthentic parts is not, from the point of view of the text itself, unreasonable. But it assumes, one, that there was an historical Jesus to whom Josephus could have referred, and two, that Josephus could have penned even the reduced version. As for the first point, much argumentation starts from the preconceived position that, well, Josephus talks about other messianic agitators, like Judas the Galilean and Theudas the magician, so it seems reasonable to think he would have made some reference to Jesus, who for him would have fallen into the same category. (Keep that last point in mind for later!) From the mythicist point of view, of course, this is begging the question, and since, as I maintained at the beginning of this article, strong evidence exists outside Josephus to indicate that no human Jesus stood at the beginning of the Christian movement, then the Testimonium can validly be questioned in its entirety, without such preconceptions.

Let’s look at the ostensibly genuine passage as it is commonly distilled from the later composite. I’ll use Meier’s reconstruction from A Marginal Jew (though not its translation):

The Content of the Testimonium Flavianum

13. Josephan phrases and vocabulary in the Testimonium - The first argument usually put forward by defenders of this “original” is that it is full of phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. “Now about this time . . .” is a common expression; Josephus uses “wise man” of Solomon and Daniel. The “wonderful works” is the same expression as that applied to Elisha. And “tribe” as a description of the Christians is used for the Jewish “race” and other groups. Such words identify these sections of the Testimonium as original and authentic to Josephus.

Naturally, the suggestion has been made that such features are deliberately used by the Christian interpolator to make his passage look authentic. Since the object of the exercise is to fool the reader into thinking that this is so, it is hardly unreasonable—and certainly not “more than a little silly,” as Kirby labels it—to suggest such an explanation. Guignebert (p.17) says: “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter.” A copyist transcribing Josephus for months on end would not have to work very hard to effect such an imitation—indeed, it might almost come second nature.

It is further objected that the clearly Christian phrases contain no such distinguishing Josephan vocabulary, but this is hardly surprising. When the interpolator is constructing those elements for which Josephus elsewhere contains similar ideas, such as “wise man” and “tribe” in the sense of a group, he has precedents to draw on. But when he gets to “rising on the third day,” this is a uniquely Christian idea. The rest of the acknowledged Christian parts don’t offer much in the way of opportunities for Josephan characteristics, either. As for “receiving the truth,” I haven’t checked thoroughly, but I somehow doubt that the down-to-earth and pragmatic mind of Josephus ever turned its attention, much less its expectation, to uncovering such a thing.

Kirby suggests that in view of the ‘erudition’ required to construct this false passage, it does not square with the naivete embodied in including the “obviously bogus” phrase, “he was the Messiah.” But as I have indicated, a copyist working for a long time with the texts does not need to be “erudite” to perform a moderately successful imitation, and the latter is quite compatible with naivete. Indeed, naivete was a standard characteristic of all the early Fathers. The learned historian Eusebius, after all, as well as every Christian commentator for the next 13 centuries, accepted unquestioningly the entire Testimonium Flavianum, along with its declaration that Jesus “was the Messiah.” Of course, they swallowed a lot worse than that.

On the other hand, one could speculate, as Kirby does, that the interpolator actually wrote “he was believed to be the Messiah,” which survives in Jerome’s version and amid a more reworked Arabic recension. Kirby is probably right in not being able to envision a Christian copyist watering down the pure phrase, though he takes the Jerome version as part of the Josephus original. The naivete would then be the responsibility of a later stage of revision, by a scribe who couldn’t let the non-committal earlier phrase stand.

Thus I would say that the standard objections to the Testimonium being a total Christian construction, based on the style and intention of the writing, are definitely inconclusive.

14. The short extent of the Testimonium - Another standard argument is that if a Christian had constructed this passage entirely, he would not have limited himself to something so short to describe the career of his Savior. This can easily be disposed of, for the same argument would have to apply to the one who supposedly added the extra elements to the presumed original. Why didn't he make them longer? The situation is not the same as the one dealt with earlier, where any kind of insertion longer than a phrase or so couldn’t have been fitted into the Antiquities 20 passage about James’ death. Here we have a digressional paragraph which interrupts the flow of the context in any case, so no impediment stood in the way of a scribe enlarging on a Josephus original, to whatever extent he wished.

So why didn’t the one who constructed the entire Testimonium indulge himself at greater length? I don’t presume to know. Perhaps he was running out of energy (or light) at the end of a long day. Perhaps it was his last codex sheet and the shop didn’t reopen until Monday. My facetiousness is designed simply to point out, again, those mundane circumstances that may accompany any aspect of an historical enquiry, ones we cannot hope to uncover and whose existence always stands in danger of being lost sight of.

The objection, therefore, is at best inconclusive.

15. Interrupting contexts - G. A. Wells and others have argued that the continuity of the flanking passages works best when no passage about Jesus intervenes. The final thought of the previous paragraph flows naturally into the words of the one following, whereas the opening of the latter paragraph does not fit as a follow-up to the closing sentence of the Testimonium. This argument is somewhat tempered by the fact that since the ancients had no concept of footnotes, digressional material had to be inserted into the main text, as there was nowhere else to put it. However, one might ask whether the Testimonium should be considered digressional material, since it continues with the theme of Pilate’s activities and about various woes which befall the Jews. One might also suggest that, digression or no, once Josephus had written it, his opening words in the subsequent paragraph ought to have reflected, rather than ignored, the paragraph on Jesus.

16. What did Josephus know about Christianity? - Supporters of the ‘authentic core’ position point out that the reconstructed passage contains virtually no Gospel elements; in fact, there are features which would tend to be contradictory of the Gospels. The miracles are only “wonderful works”—no healings, exorcisms or feats over nature are specified. The reference to the Jews in “upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us,” doesn’t reflect the rabid Gospel portrayal of the evil Jewish establishment which hounded and plotted against Jesus, arrested him and shoved him under an unwilling Pilate’s nose demanding the death penalty. In fact, the text identifies Pilate as the one who “had condemned him to the cross.” Even the part about “winning over many Greeks” is not strictly based on the Gospels, which have no account of Jesus actually preaching to non-Jews; and although he occasionally reacts favorably to gentiles who approach him, he can also forbid his disciples to go to “swine”.

Such observations are certainly legitimate. But they can in many cases be diluted. At the end of Matthew, Jesus directs his apostles to preach to all nations, and an interpolator might incorporate the spirit of this into the reference to winning over Greeks. Especially so in a gentile community where, regardless of what the Gospels did or did not say, it is almost inevitable that a tradition would have developed that Jesus had preached to and won over gentiles. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that a scribe would primarily base his interpolation on his familiarity with the Gospels and their specific details, especially as he is trying to mimic Josephus’ own tone and vocabulary. He would hardly think it appropriate to have Josephus paint his own countrymen as wretchedly as do the Gospels. He is also inserting his passage into an account by Josephus of the misfortunes suffered by the innocent Jewish people under a reprehensible Pilate, so a passage which whitewashed the governor and demonized the Jews in the death of Jesus, such as we find in the Gospels, would stick out like a sore thumb. In any case, even in the Gospels it is Pilate who sends Jesus to the cross, not the Jews, so there is no ‘inaccuracy’ in the reference as it stands.

In this connection, another problem arises in trying to accept the reconstructed original. Without the “Christian insertions,” Josephus says nothing about a reputed resurrection of Jesus. James H. Charlesworth, as quoted by Kirby, claims that the removed sections make for an original whose flow, grammatically and otherwise, is “improved and smoother” (Jesus Within Judaism, p.93-94) and he specifically points to the flanking elements of the crucifixion insertion, thus offering no possibility that Josephus had included a reference, perhaps derogatory, to a belief in Christ’s resurrection.

But how likely is it that Josephus (a) would have been ignorant of this element of Christian belief, or (b) would have left it out? Josephus may not himself have known any Gospels, but if he knew that Jesus was a “wise man” who had taught, if he knew he had performed “wonderful works,” if he knew the basic facts surrounding the crucifixion, it is inconceivable that he would have been ignorant of the central claim of the Christian faith, that this man crucified by Pilate had risen from his grave three days later. Even the “non-Christian source” posited by Meier would hardly have left this out. And if Josephus felt impelled to include for his readers any report about a messianic pretender who had given rise to a “tribe” that persisted “to this day,” he would surely have wanted to inform them of this tribe’s outlandish belief that their founder had walked out of his tomb. I can think of no motivation for Josephus to leave it out purposely. Simply reporting it would not have cast any aspersions on his own credulity. The supposed absence of this element seriously undermines the standard reconstruction of a Josephus original.

Witness to the Testimonium Flavianum

17. Silence on the Testimonium by the Church Fathers - Before addressing the biggest problem of all, I will consider the question of the lack of Christian witness to any version of the Testimonium Flavianum before Eusebius in the early 4th century. Defenders of a Josephus original realize that this requires explanation. For it is a surprising fact that not a single writer before Eusebius, not Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, not Origen, Tertullian, the prolific Cyprian and Arnobius, along with many others, in all their discussions of how the outside world viewed Christians and the figure of Jesus, in all their defences against pagan hostility, nevertheless make not the slightest reference to Josephus’ account of this “wise man” who had “performed many wonderful works,” who “won over many Jews and gentiles,” who was perhaps a “teacher of the truth,” one who was denounced by the (long despised) Jewish leaders, crucified by Pilate but who enjoyed so much love and support from his followers that their numbers grew and their devotion had “continued to this day.” It must be admitted that this silence is incredible. It is, per se, a damning piece of evidence against the claim that any part of the Testimonium Flavianum could have been present before Eusebius in Christian copies of the works of Josephus.

The common rejoinder that there was no need for all these Christian commentators to make reference to a description which contained all the above elements voiced by a non-Christian is inherently implausible. A moment’s unbiased consideration must show that. There is so much in this “neutral” account that Christians could have “put a spin on” in defense of themselves and Jesus, so much that could have given succor, support and even ammunition in much of what the Christian apologists were attempting to do in their writing. Origen alone spent a quarter of a million words contending against Celsus, drawing on all sorts of proofs and witnesses to the arguments he makes, including referring to Josephus, yet we are to believe that not once did a single element of this almost glowing description of Jesus by the famous Jewish historian commend itself for mention.

To give one specific example. In Book I, chapters 46, 67 and 68 of Contra Celsum, Origen reports that Celsus had disparaged the miracles of Jesus, accusing Jesus of having learned his wonder-working tricks from the Egyptians. Origen counters this by claiming that Jesus’ deeds were superior to anything contained in the Greek myths, and that Jesus performed his miracles in order to win people over to his commendable ethical teachings, something no Egyptian trickster could emulate. An appeal here to the declaration by Josephus, a respected Jewish historian, that Jesus had been a "wise man" who performed "wonderful works," would have served to place Jesus and his miracles in the favorable light in which Origen is trying to cast them.

Thus Jeff Lowder's claim that the original account of Josephus “would not have been very useful” (<>) does not commend itself. There was so little comment to be found in any pagan writing about Christianity which was not condemnatory (consider Tacitus’ “haters of mankind”), derisive (Lucian’s ridicule of Christian beliefs in The Death of Peregrinus), or adversarial (Celsus’ attack on Christianity which prompted half a lifetime’s work by Origen on a rebuttal), I challenge anyone to read through the reconstructed Josephus original and say that they can seriously entertain the notion that every single Christian apologist for over two centuries would regard not a single element of it as worthy of mention. Indeed, if memory hasn’t failed me, the reconstructed Testimonium would probably be the sole example of a non-negative comment on Christianity by an outsider until Constantine’s conversion. And yet we are to assume that it held no use or appeal?

As in the case of the New Testament epistles' silence on a human Jesus, it is the totality of the silence that is most damning, for it must posit that the suggested motives for the silence are to be applied not to one individual (something conceivable) but to every single individual in many situations, many places, and over a long period of time. Such things don’t happen in history and go against common sense.

John Meier (A Marginal Jew, p.79) offers a questionable explanation for the blanket silence. Meier’s argument is that the Christian Fathers would recognize that Josephus’ testimony showed that he didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, or believed that he had risen from the dead; it testified to Josephus’ unbelief and was therefore avoided. Should the apologists have found this surprising or disconcerting in a non-Christian? They dealt with unbelief every day, faced it head on, tried to counter and even win over the opponent. Justin’s major work, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, did just that. Origen, in his own tackling of Celsus, didn’t shy away from criticizing Josephus for not identifying the right person’s death as the reason for Jerusalem’s fall, or from pointing out that he didn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. It hardly seems that the silence on Antiquities 18.3.3 by all before Eusebius can be explained by such a line of reasoning.

And what of that latter statement by Origen, that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ? It is often claimed that this constitutes an oblique reference to an original Testimonium which was silent on such a thing. But rather than assume that Josephus’ silence on the matter would impel Origen’s comment, we should look for some positive statement in Josephus which might lead Origen to his conclusion. And in fact we have such a statement in Jewish War 6.5.4, where Josephus declares that the Jewish messianic prophecies were really about the victorious emperor Vespasian. This statement alone would have been sufficient to prompt Origen’s comment that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

Authorship of the Testimonium Flavianum

18. Could Josephus have written the reconstructed Testimonium? - This leads me to the most significant set of arguments against the validity of the reconstructed Josephus original. Could Josephus under any circumstances have written even the reduced version?

Jeff Lowder admits in his essay that if Josephus had said anything overtly hostile about Jesus or Christians, “Origen would probably have singled it out for rebuke.” This observation is certainly valid, and it precludes any fallback position that Josephus could have had an entirely different reference to Jesus, one that was hostile, in Antiquities 18.3.3, and that a Christian copyist removed it completely, replacing it with the one we see now.

It would seem, then, that Josephus had to work within a very narrow window of expression to give us the situation we find, namely that nobody mentions the passage one way or the other. But we must ask, whatever would have led Josephus to express himself on Jesus within such a fine range: neither praising nor condemning, neither hostile nor friendly, but tiptoeing past the apologists on a completely neutral, middle ground—if we could even view the reconstructed passage in such a light?

For the fact of the matter is, the whole tenor of the Josephan “original” does not ring true for Josephus! In the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say. Indeed, as I’ve quoted above, he condemns the whole movement of popular agitators and orators as the bane of the century, leading to the destruction of the Temple, of the city, of the Jewish state. It is virtually impossible that he could make some kind of exception, some distinction for this “Jesus” to whom he devotes so little space.

On what basis would he do so? If Josephus had possessed an intimate knowledge of Jesus, leading to some favorable estimation of the man that was markedly different from his usual attitude toward such figures, we would expect much more than the cursory account in Antiquities 18. The latter, in fact, amounts to little more than a bare summation of basic Gospel elements. In any case, most commentators conclude that Josephus had little familiarity with Christianity, so such an explanation would have to be discounted. Would Jewish sources have provided a favorable account of Jesus’ teachings or activities? Hardly, and certainly not by the 90s, when Jewish leaders were laying anathemas on the Christians. Jeff Lowder raises the possibility that Josephus’ information came from “official Roman records,” but such a record would hardly have presented Jesus in any positive fashion, nor even a neutral one.

Why, then, would Josephus have made an exception for Jesus? Did he have reports of Jesus' teachings, all of which he perceived as laudable? That is difficult to envision. By the late 1st century, if we can judge by the Gospels and even scholarly reconstructions of Q, any commendable teachings of Jesus were inextricably mixed up with all sorts of inflammatory and subversive pronouncements and prophecies of a revolutionary and apocalyptic nature (whether authentic to Jesus or not). The latter would have been an expression of the very thing Josephus hated and condemned in all the other popular and executed agitators of the period. It would be difficult to postulate a situation in which his knowledge of Jesus the “teacher” could have been so selective as to screen out the objectionable elements that would have been attached to him as well. Even within the teachings which we today regard as commendable, including ones which critical scholars such as the Jesus Seminar judge to be authentic, there were ‘counter-culture’ sentiments which would have struck Josephus and his patrons as subversive, things like the poor inheriting the earth (which implies the overthrow of established authority), or pronouncements that openly condemned the Jewish leaders who cooperated with Roman rule. Thus we are justified in concluding that it is impossible that Josephus could have referred to Jesus as “a wise man.”

When we get to the phrase, “(he was) a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure,” which Kirby and Meier and even Crossan (The Historical Jesus, p.373) regard as authentic, the claim for authenticity becomes intolerable, for how can anyone believe that Josephus would consider referring to a Jesus to whom all the various Christian expressions and expectations were attached (including the destruction of the world) as a “teacher of the truth”?

And what of the phrase “a doer of wonderful works”? Or even translating this as the less starry-eyed “startling works”? This in Josephus’ mind would put Jesus into the same class as those popular agitators like Theudas the magician who promised to divide the river Jordan so that his followers could cross over it, or the unnamed Egyptian who claimed that his command would knock down the walls of Jerusalem. Would Christian or any other reports filter out the healings (which Josephus might conceivably accept as believable or laudatory) from Jesus’ reputed miracles over nature, or his Gospel prophecy that the walls of the Temple would tumble?

The very presence in the Testimonium of the phrase "wonderful works" indicates that some of Josephus’ report would have been based on traditions about miracle-working by Jesus. This rules out a ‘private pipeline’ to some authentic picture of an enlightened sage. Instead, it opens the door to the possibility of a wide range of reports about dramatic and even revolutionary acts by Jesus, such as we find in both Q and the Gospels: working miracles in front of large crowds, challenging and condemning the religious authorities, or causing an uproar in the Temple. (If the story of the cleansing of the Temple were factual, such an incident would not have escaped Josephus knowledge, nor his reporting.) Factual or not, if such traditions were circulating about Jesus, this from Josephus’ point of view would have brought him into association with the Zealotic rebels, bandits and general crazies who had infested the land of Israel prior to the great War and were most responsible for its devastating ruin. Could the historian have presented this Jesus in even a "neutral" way, could he have regarded him in any other light than just another detestable fanatic?

Taken as a whole, again to judge by the Christians’ own record in the Gospels and even some of the epistles, “the tribe of the Christians” toward the end of the 1st century was still a strongly apocalyptic one, one that expected the overthrow of the empire and established authority and the transformation of the world into God’s Kingdom. Nothing in Josephus’ situation would have led him to divorce this prevailing Christian outlook from his judgment of the movement’s founder. Those fundamental apocalyptic doctrines it held, which Christians themselves would have declared were part of Jesus’ own pronouncements, could not possibly have escaped him if he so much as knew of the sect’s existence.

The report in Tacitus, the persecution witnessed in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, the birkat ha-minim (curse on the heretics) of the Jewish synagogues after Jamnia, all testify to the hostility and vilification which Christian sects endured at the time. On what basis would Josephus buck such a trend? Through what channels would he receive a favorable report on Jesus that could override all this and that he would accept? Even if he were conversant with Christians, would he be inclined to choose their word over the prevailing opinion—a word which, in any case, would hardly filter out all the things Josephus would inevitably react against? Would he imply approval or even a touch of admiration for this Christian tribe by saying that “those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so?” I once referred to the distilled Testimonium as still “too warm and snuggly” and I stand by that evaluation.

19. Did Josephus draw on old personal memories? - Lest it occur to the reader that there might be an ‘out’ in all this, let me address it here. Could Josephus have set aside all the negative traditions (from his point of view) that were current about Jesus and the Christians, and relied instead on personal memories from his pre-War days in Judea and Galilee? Might we presume that the idealized picture painted by those modern scholars who have excavated a “genuine” Jesus from Q1 is essentially correct, and that Jesus had been an enlightened, Cynic-style sage who never breathed a word about apocalyptic destruction or the Son of Man? Was Josephus’ evaluation based on first-hand, remembered contact with early Christians who had followed such a sage? (He was born in Palestine in 37 CE.)

I have never encountered anyone in this debate who alleges that Josephus had such contact with or knowledge of earliest Christianity. In fact, not having been aware of painting themselves into the corner I have outlined, scholars have rejected such a thing. Again, rightly so. Those personal memories would have had to be very strong and very positive for Josephus to have trusted them and allowed them to override all the negativity which became attached to the Christian name. This would hardly have been likely. Josephus was of a priestly family, and he never gives any indication of having had contact with Christian circles. One can even assume that there would have been some negativity felt toward Jesus and Christians in the Jewish circles he did move in, as witness (from Paul) the persecution certain early Christian communities were subjected to.

In addition, with all due respect to the Jesus Seminar and various new questers, that Jesus could actually have been such a paragon as to create this strong, positive and lasting impression in one who was not a follower and who had never met him personally, is also highly unlikely. Nor is it likely that the Christian movement in the 50s, let’s say, when Josephus might have formed such an impression, was free of all objectionable elements. The paragon picture, in any case, is compromised by the phrase “doer of wonderful works,” which automatically brings in elements which Josephus would have regarded as negative.

But the overriding consideration is that if Josephus were drawing on such early, personal memories, he would be presenting a picture of Jesus which went against the general view of Christianity by outsiders at the time he was writing, as well as against the principles and outlook he elsewhere expresses toward those things which would have been associated with the Christian sect and founder. If, under any circumstances, Josephus were making this kind of exception for Jesus, he would hardly have done so without a word of explanation, without an account of how this particular executed messianic agitator was unlike the rest. And it would have had to be in decidedly positive terms which a Christian would never have deleted or ignored. He would have spent more than three “neutral” sentences on the man.

20. Josephus was writing for the Establishment - The final point to be stressed is that Josephus was writing under Roman and Flavian sponsorship. His readers were primarily Roman, some Jewish. He certainly was not writing for Christians. What reason would he have had for being, in Meier’s phrase, “purposely ambiguous”? He had nothing to fear from Christians, and no reason to consider their sensibilities. Regardless of what he may have thought about the character of Pilate, if Pilate had executed Jesus, then there had to be—in official Roman and Flavian eyes—a justification for doing so. Crucifixion was a punishment for rebels, and Jesus’ crucifixion would have been seen as part of Rome’s ongoing campaign to deal with the problems of a troubled time and province.

Yet how, in the reconstructed Testimonium, does Josephus deal with the event? The words and their context give the impression that it was due to “an accusation made by men of the highest standing among us,” the execution of a wise and loved man, a teacher of truth who was obviously innocent—a Gospel image if there ever was one. Was Pilate thereby duped? The Roman governor forced to do something reprehensible? There could be no basis on which Josephus would be led to interpret the event this way, much less put it in writing for a Roman audience. Again, there would have been no channel through which such a judgment would have come to him that he would have accepted. And no way he could have avoided explaining himself if he did.

In his Life (65/363), Josephus declares that the emperor Titus himself “affixed his own signature to them [copies of the original Greek edition of the Jewish War] and gave orders for their publication.” Josephus wrote at the behest of his Flavian patrons. Their motives were his motives. The official Roman outlook was largely his own outlook, at least where the War and the events which led up to it were concerned. The Testimonium Flavianum, in any version, makes no sense within such a Josephan world picture.

Thus Meier’s claim (A Marginal Jew, p.63) that, “this summary description of Jesus is conceivable in the mouth of a Jew who is not openly hostile to him” cannot be accepted and contravenes any rational standard of historical criticism. It may not be easy to uncover the mind or situation of the Christian interpolator who composed this passage in its entirety, with its curious amalgam of understated, off-the-Gospel-mark, imitative elements. But it is far easier to postulate such a thing, than it is to impute to a mind we essentially do know, in circumstances we do understand, a piece of writing which would contravene every principle Josephus stood for, every view he elsewhere expresses, every influence we can safely say must have operated upon him.


Supplement: from the text of The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?

21. The Galilean vs. the Pauline Jesus - In any location outside Palestine and Syria, all the evidence concerning Christianity in the latter first century relates to the cultic expression of the Pauline type. Here Jesus is the cosmic Son of God, creator and sustainer of the universe, source of salvation through his death and resurrection. That evidence, as we have seen from writings like the pseudo-Pauline epistles, 1 Clement, Revelation, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Odes of Solomon, has nothing to say about the Galilean side of things, about the ministry as portrayed in the Gospels—nor about Jesus’ death under Pilate.

If we can assume that Josephus, writing in the 90s, would reflect views of Jesus current in Rome at that time, how do we explain the fact that his "original" Testimonium says nothing about the cultic Christ of Paul, the redemptive Son of God who was an exalted divinity? Such cosmic descriptions and claims about the Son as are found in the first century epistles would have been a part of the Christian ethos which Josephus was exposed to. (Paul addresses the Roman congregation in those terms, indicating that this is the way Roman Christians regarded Jesus. 1 Clement, written in Rome and contemporary with Josephus, speaks in similar terms about the spiritual Christ.)

If Christians were going about talking of their founder in terms familiar to us from the epistles, this elevation of a crucified criminal to the very status of divine Son of the God of Abraham would hardly have been ignored by Josephus. For Josephus was intimately concerned with his Jewish heritage, its traditions and beliefs. The natural affront to Jewish sensibilities in the fundamental Christian doctrine about Jesus, its blasphemous association of a human man with God and the bestowing on him of all God’s divine titles, would have received the closest attention from the historian, and inevitably his condemnation.

Nothing in the "authentic" Testimonium breathes a whisper of the Pauline Son of God. Instead, it sets its sights no higher than the Gospel-like picture of a remarkable sage who was crucified and gave rise to a new movement. With the addition of the resurrection, this is essentially Mark’s amalgamation of Q with a passion narrative. This absence of any dimension relating to the cultic Christ is further evidence that the Testimonium is a product of second or third century Christian outlook, one in which the Gospel picture predominates, while the earlier cosmic Christ has receded into the shadows behind it.

In regard to the Jesus of Q, there are two ways of looking at the question. One is that if Josephus is writing history—however briefly—and the Jesus he is addressing was the founder (under whatever name) of a movement as extensive as the record makes it out to be, from Galilee through Syria, this should be reflected in what Josephus says. If Jesus had inaugurated a widespread counter-culture movement which prophesied the end of the world and delivered an innovative philosophy of life, and Josephus knew of him in that role—even if not to the extent of knowing what was "genuine" to this teacher—that role should have been reflected in the original Testimonium. Instead, the Jesus described there is simply an isolated figure, a "wise man" and a miracle worker. Apart from the difficulties in regarding this as Josephus’ own evaluation, such an account would scarcely have done justice to the man who had presumably set so much in motion. (In the absence of a known founder figure, Josephus’ silence on the subject of the movement itself may be understandable.)


The authenticity of the reconstructed Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities 18.3.3 is untenable. Historical “knowledge” is based not on mathematical proof, but on weight of probability produced by the documentary or archaeological record and the rational deductions we can make from it. If the weight of the arguments offered in this article is to be dismissed without thorough consideration, then dissenters to the mythicist position are not dealing in unbiased historical evaluation. At the very least, it must be acknowledged that Josephus collapses as reliable evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus.


Here in summary (following the numbered headings in the text) is the balance of the argument, relating to Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3:

[Link to previous summary arguments relating to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1.]

13. Josephan phrases and vocabulary in the Testimonium - It is not unreasonable that an interpolator would try (and successfully) to mimic Josephus by using language characteristic of him. Nor is it incompatible with the naivete of introducing blatant Christian doctrine, although the direct “he was the Messiah” may come from a second stage of interpolation.

14. The short extent of the Testimonium - If it is claimed that a Christian constructing the entire passage would have waxed about Jesus at greater length, so would someone adding elements to it, since the paragraph was a digression from the context anyway. We can’t know why the interpolator kept it so short.

15. Interrupting contexts - This traditional argument against authenticity, that the Testimonium interrupts a natural flow of wording and content from the preceding to the following paragraphs, is admittedly not foolproof, since digressions within the text were unavoidable and took the place of modern footnotes. Yet the paragraph on Jesus is not entirely a digression, and its presence should have been reflected in the adjacent wordings of the flanking passages.

16. What did Josephus know about Christianity? - If the reconstructed passage contains no Gospel elements (which is certainly debatable), considerations of context could be one reason. And since the “original” would have contained no reference to the resurrection, which Josephus would hardly have been ignorant of and deliberately left out, its authenticity is undermined.

17. Silence on the Testimonium by the Church Fathers - The silence on the Testimonium by all before Eusebius cannot be adequately explained, since even its so-called neutral content would have been appealing and useful to the apologists. The totality of the silence is damning. Origen’s declaration that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah could have been prompted by the view he read in Jewish War 6.5.4 that Vespasian had been the object of the messianic prophecies.

18. Could Josephus have written the reconstructed Testimonium? - The reconstructed original cannot be assigned to Josephus, since it contradicts what he says about all the other messianic agitators. There is no source or basis from which he would have made an exception for Jesus, and the apocalyptic and revolutionary elements associated with Jesus and the Christian movement, as well as the miracle traditions, would have precluded it. Josephus would have had no reason to buck the current hostile attitude toward Christians.

19. Did Josephus draw on old personal memories? - There is no evidence that Josephus in his youth had any contact with Christians, and unlikely that it would have produced convictions about Jesus to override all the negativity attached to him later. If such a thing had happened, he would have created a much longer, more positive description of Jesus.

20. Josephus was writing for the Establishment - His Roman audience and Flavian sponsors would not have accepted that Jesus had been crucified unjustly, and certainly not without an explanation on Josephus’ part.

21. (Supplement) The Galilean vs. the Pauline Jesus - Even though Christians in Rome would have held a belief in Jesus as the cosmic Son of God, a crucified man elevated to divinity, Josephus makes no mention of such a doctrine, one he as a Jew would have found blasphemous and objectionable, and another negative mark against Jesus. Instead, the Testimonium reflects a later Gospel outlook, in which the Pauline type of Christ has receded into the background. Josephus is also silent on Jesus as the founder of a widespread (as we see from the record) Kingdom of God preaching movement.

— Effect on Antiquities 20 - As promised at the end of Part II, if the above arguments seriously undermine the feasibility of accepting any core of the Testimonium in Antiquities 18 as authentic to Josephus, this has fatal repercussions on the other reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. Reversing a common argument, if Josephus did not deal with Jesus earlier in the text, it is unlikely that he could have authored the phrase attached to James, “the brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ”, since “the one” would have implied a previous reference. The reader would be left wondering just who this Jesus was. (The Christian interpolator was not so perceptive.)

[Link to previous summary arguments relating to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1.]

[Link to “overview” Index]

Final Conclusion

Although it may well be that we owe Josephus’ survival through the Middle Ages to the unknown Christian interpolator who gave us the Testimonium, it is time to release Josephus from his Christian captivity—and from the bonds of those who continue to claim him as a witness to the existence of an historical Jesus. But if the weight of argument would impel us to acknowledge that Josephus seems to have made no reference at all to Jesus, what implications do we draw from this?

Here is a Jewish historian who was born and grew up in Judea shortly after Pilate’s tumultous governorship, with its presumed crucifixion of a Jewish sage and wonder worker, a man whose followers claimed had risen from the dead and who gave rise to a vital new religious sect. Here is an historian who remembers and records in his work with staggering efficiency and in voluminous detail the events and personalities and socio-political subtleties of eight decades and more. Can we believe that Josephus would have been ignorant of this teaching revolutionary and the empire-wide movement he produced, or that for some unfathomable reason he chose to omit Jesus from his chronicles?

Destroying the credibility of the Josephus references inevitably places a very strong nail in the coffin of the historical Jesus.


The essay on “Flavius Josephus” by Peter Kirby can be found at the following address: