Josephus – Pharisee Turned Roman Jewish Historian


Perhaps the most famous secular source outside the Bible who twice made reference to Jesus as a real historical figure was a Jewish Pharisee turned Roman citizen and historian. Born in 37 AD as Joseph son of High Priest Matthias is better known by his Roman name Flavius Josephus.

Born during the first year of Caligula’s (Caius) reign meant Josephus grew up during the era of Jesus’ disciples, the beginning of Christianity.[1]

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 led to his eventual defeat and capture by Roman Legion commander Vespasian.

Eventually befriending his Roman captor, Josephus told Vespasian he would one day become Emperor of Rome, a concept that did not seem possible at the time. Vespasian did indeed become Emperor of Rome within two years.

As Emperor, Vespasian granted Josephus Roman citizenship and was then employed by the Roman government as a Jewish historian.[2] His responsibility as a historian was to cover the historical account of the Jews with a focus on Greek influences.[3]

While Josephus had enemies among both the Jewish and Roman populations, he was trusted by the house of Vespasian. He eventually went on to serve both of Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian, each of whom also ruled as Roman Emperors.

The Antiquity of the Jews consisting of 20 books written by Josephus is considered by some to be one of the greatest works of antiquity. It chronicles Hebrew history from creation of the earth to the era of Roman Emperor Nero and Procurator Florus.

Previously Josephus penned The Jewish Wars consisting of seven books chronicling his unique experiences and insights, both from the perspective as a Jewish General and as an eyewitness from a Roman military perspective to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Two other works by him included Against Apion and his autobiography, The Life of Josephus.

Today, in-spite-of critics charging that he embellished some of the accounts, Josephus’ works are widely accepted to be authentic, factual Jewish historical accounts.[3] That is, except for one particular section making reference to Jesus by name, commonly referred to by scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum.[4]

Conspiracy theorists allege that Christian scribes intentionally manipulated the handwritten texts of the Testimonium where 133 copies are still in existence today, in part or in whole, dating back to 324 AD.[5] Quoted from Antiquities is the Testimonium with the most commonly alleged interpolations appearing in italics: [6]

“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.”[7]

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, typically unmentioned by Christian conspiracy theorists, is that Josephus made another reference to Jesus. Typically not disputed, the historian wrote in a second reference of Antiquities that Jesus “who was called Christ”:

“…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…”[8]

Undisputed perhaps for good cause – too much specific historical detail to explain away. 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.

Two secular references are made by Josephus to a historical figure named 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?


Update October 17, 2023.

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[1] “Flavius Josephus,” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <>  “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  2014. <>   “Josephus.” Ed. Jona Lendering. 2016. <> White, L. Michael. “Josephus, Our Primary Source.” PBS|Frontline. Apr. 1998. <>  Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works of Josephus. image. 1850. <>  Josephus, Flavius.  The Life of Flavius Josephus. The Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. and Commentary by William Whitson. 1-2. <> Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.3; Book XIX, Chapter VI.4; Book XX, Chapter VIII.7.
[2] Josephus. The Life of Flavius Josephus.  Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Book VIII, “Tacitus,” #6.  University of Chicago|Bill Thayer.  <>
[3] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter XI.2. n.d <> Carrier, Richard C. “Herod the Procurator:  Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?” 2011. p 7-8. <
[4] “Josephus, Flavius.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.   “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[5] Goldberg, G. J. “Josephus’ Account of Jesus – The Testimonium Flavianum”. <>
[6] Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Pages 93-96.  Google Books. < Judaica. Vol. 11. 2nd edition.  Gale Virtual Reference Library. “Jesus.” Pages: 246-251.  <>
[7] 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.  <>
[8] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter IX.1.
[9] CR Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter IX.4.