Josephus – Pharisee Turned Roman Jewish Historian
Perhaps the most famous secular source outside the Bible who made reference to Jesus as a real historical figure was a Jewish Pharisee turned Roman citizen and historian. Born in 37 AD, Joseph, better known by his Roman name, Flavius Josephus, grew up during the era of Jesus’ disciples, the beginning of Christianity.[i]
Josephus was appointed by the Sanhedrin to be the governor of Galilee and served as its military General commanding over 100,000 men. As a result of Jewish political treachery on multiple fronts, it contributed to his eventual defeat and capture by Roman Legion commander Vespasian. Josephus eventually befriended his captor and foretold to Vespasian that he would one day be Emperor of Rome, a thought that did not seem possible at the time.
Vespasian did indeed become Roman Emperor within two years. Josephus was granted Roman citizenship and employment by Rome as a Jewish historian.[ii]
While Josephus had enemies among both the Jewish and Roman populations, he was trusted by the house of Vespasian to eventually serve both of his sons, Titus and Domitian, when each ruled as Emperors. His role as a historian was to chronicle the official historical account of the Jews for an intended Roman audience.
The Antiquity of the Jews authored by Josephus is considered by some to be one of the greatest works of antiquity, consisting of 20 books. Previously, he penned The Jewish Wars consisting of seven books where his experiences offered unique insights, both from the perspective as a Jewish General and later as an eyewitness from the Roman military perspective to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Two other works included Against Apion and his autobiography, The Life of Josephus.
Today Josephus’ works, discounting some of his apparent self-serving embellishments, are widely accepted to be authentic, factual Jewish historical accounts.[iii] That is, except for one particular section making reference to Jesus by name, commonly referred to by scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum.[iv]
Conspiracy theorists allege that Christian scribes intentionally manipulated the text while reproducing handwritten copies of which there are still 133 in existence, in part or in whole, dating back to 324 AD.[v] Quoted from Antiquities, the most commonly alleged interpolations of the Testimonium appear in italics: [vi]
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure: he drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles also: this was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first, did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these, and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And still the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”[vii]
One undisputed key phrase is “Jesus, a wise man” whereas the phrase “this was the Christ” is disputed. Taking out the disputed phrases still leaves in place the portions of Josephus’ account that says a wise man named Jesus drew many followers including Gentiles, known as Christians, and he was crucified by order of Pilate. A curious fact is typically unmentioned by the Christian conspiracy theorists is that Josephus made a second reference to Jesus, “who was called Christ” in a different book of Antiquities, one that is not disputed:
“…Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions.] And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”[viii]
Undisputed perhaps for good cause – too much specific historical detail? A highly charged political issue involving a King, a Roman Procurator, an illegal Sanhedrin-ordered execution, a formal Jewish complaint to Rome and the forced removal of the High Priest would be very difficult to make a reasonable claim of interpolation. Further, it corroborates the Bible verse Galatians 1:19 “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.” (NKJV)
Two historical references by Josephus to Jesus, the “Christ,” the Greek word for “Messiah,” but only one is disputed by critics. How likely is it that one is an interpolation while the other is not?
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[i] “Flavius Josephus,” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com> “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com> “Josephus.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2016. <http://www.livius.org/person/augustus> White, L. Michael. “Josephus, Our Primary Source.” PBS|Frontline. Apr. 1998. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/josephus.html> Last accessed 6 Jan. 2021.
[ii] Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Flavius Josephus. The Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. and Commentary by William Whitson. Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius). The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Book VIII, “Tacitus,” #6. University of Chicago|Bill Thayer. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>
[iii] “Josephus, Flavius.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[iv] Goldberg, G. J. “Josephus’ Account of Jesus – The Testimonium Flavianum”. Josephus.org. <http://www.josephus.org/testimonium.htm>
[v] Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Pages 93-96. Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=lwzliMSRGGkC> Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 11. 2nd edition. Gale Virtual Reference Library. “Jesus.” Pages: 246-251. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/infomark.do?action=interpret&eisbn=9780028660974&prodId=GVRL&userGroupName=imcpl1111&type=aboutBook&version=1.0&authCount=1&u=imcpl1111>
[vi] Westcott, Brooke F. & Hort, John A. The New Testament in the Original Greek – Introduction | Appendix. 1907. “Introduction , #7, #10, #5, #6-11, #240, #313, #363.. Google Book. <http://books.google.com/books?id=0xtVAAAAMAAJ&pg=ACfU3U33CMW3331Vv20NgGvjyOs52I1mlA&vq=%22will+not+be+out+of+place+to+add+here+a+distinct+expression+of+our+belief+that+even+among+the+numerous%22&source=gbs_quotes_r&cad=2_0#v=onepage&q=criticism%20is%20still%20necessary%20&f=false>
[vii] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapter III.3.
[viii] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter IX.4.