Debates about the existence of Jesus go back many centuries and one of the most commonly used pieces of evidence concerning the historical existence of Jesus is the so-called Testimonia of Josephus. It has been used repeatedly over the centuries to establish that Jesus was a real historical figure. The Testimonia occurs in two places in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, (18, 3, 3, and 20, 9, 1.)1.
The two Testimonia go as follows:
(18, 3, 3.)
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.2
(20, 9, 1.)
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, (23) who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, 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 sanhedrim 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: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. (24) Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.3
The tone of the above passages, (18, 3, 3.), is problematic in so many ways. First there is no evidence that Josephus was a Christian and most commentators have accepted that at least the passage has been heavily corrupted. The early Christian thinker Origen, (More on that later on), for example expressly states that Josephus was not a Christian. The phrases "if it be lawful to call him a man", "He was the Christ" and are almost certain interpolations.
Further regarding the Testimonia of Josephus concerning Jesus. Well the general consensus is that at the very least Josephus' writings have been tampered with in one, (Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 3, 3.), of the two places where Josephus mentions Jesus in his writings. The debate centers on whether or not this particular passage, (Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 3, 3.), is a pious interpolation fraud or a partial one. In other words was the passage inserted in its entirety or whether a passage about Jesus was modified in order to make Josephus' description of Jesus fit Church dogma better. This debate has not by any means been settled. Making things difficult is that very few of the early Church Fathers, (Origen does allude to the passage.), even when they quote Josephus, and / or refer to him, quotes or even alludes to this passage. In fact the first to quote the Testimonia is the Church Historian Eusebius in the early 4th century C.E.,4 during the reign of Constantine the Great. And Eusebius' quote of the Testimonia is slightly different from the one we have.
Here is Eusebius’ version of the Testimonia (Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 3, 3.):
7. After relating these things concerning John, he makes mention of our Saviour in the same work, in the following words:
“And there lived at that time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be proper to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, and a teacher of such men as receive the truth in gladness. And he attached to himself many of the Jews, and many also of the Greeks. He was the Christ.
8. When Pilate, on the accusation of our principal men, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him in the beginning did not cease loving him. For he appeared unto them again alive on the third day, the divine prophets having told these and countless other wonderful things concerning him. Moreover, the race of Christians, named after him, continues down to the present day.”5
The passage from, (18, 3, 3.), makes it seem that Josephus was a Christian. That however seems very unlikely. The Church Father Origen, (c. 180 – 250 C.E.)6 who refers to Josephus but specifically says7 he was not a Christian and yet if Josephus did in fact have the beliefs given in the Testimonia Josephus would have been a Christian.
Here are two references to Josephus in Origen’s writings:
And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the “Antiquities of the Jews” in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.8
For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless— being, although against his will, not far from the truth— that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),— the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.9
Thus is appears that there is indeed something wrong with the Testimonia of Josephus concerning Jesus. It is just about certain Josephus was no Christian but one of the passages attributed too him would make it appear so. So the likelihood is that the passage in question is corrupted with one or more interpolations.
Making the whole thing more difficult is that we have an Arabic version of Josephus, which does indeed have the testimonia only it is quite different from both Eusibius' and the version we have today. To keep it simple the Arabic version does not have the features friendly to Church dogma about Jesus that exist in the version we have today. I could also go into the Slavonic version but that would be tedious.
Here is the Arabic version of (18, 3, 3.):
At this time there was wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.10
The Syriac and Slavonic versions are not much different.11
Note in this version certain of the categorical statements like “He was the Christ.” are missing. Also missing is a statement that the Resurrection had really happened, instead it is reported has a story the Jesus’ disciples had said. Now this reads a lot more of what Josephus would likely have said.
The point is Josephus' Testimonia is a highly problematic piece of evidence. Rather interestingly the other passage in which Josephus refers to James "the brother of Christ" seems to be less problematic and likely authentic. This passage is overall considerably less problematic. Although there are those who regard the phrase " the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ" as an interpolation. In which case it suggests that the other passage, (18, 3, 3.), may be at it’s core be authentic if corrupted.
The Testimonia of Josephus is highly problematic and has been treated with justified suspicion for centuries. The bottom line is that at the very least the passage has been altered to fit better the Church consensus regarding Jesus and at worst the entire passage is spurious.
My opinion is that both passages in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, (18, 3, 3, and 20, 9, 1.), are corrupted to some extent, although passage 18, 3, 3, is significantly more corrupted than passage 20, 9, 1. I do think that Josephus did in fact in the original mention Jesus in 18, 3, 3, and James has the brother of Jesus in 20, 9, 1. However both passages are so corrupted has to make reasonable people reasonably consider the possibility those passages are entirely spurious .
As to the question of whether or not Jesus ever existed. I frankly think the mythological Jesus idea is nonsense. I may later go into this in more depth. Jesus almost certainly existed and frankly the Testimonia doesn’t really advance the matter one way or the other. All it could indicate is that Josephus was familiar directly or indirectly with Christians and heard the story of Jesus from them. So frankly discrediting the Testimonia doesn’t advance the mythological Jesus idea anymore than crediting the Testimonia would discredit it.
The whole question of whether or not Josephus ever wrote the passage about Jesus, or any part of it is still subject to vigorous debate. However the consensus does seem to be that at least the earlier passage describing Christ's death is almost certainly corrupt if not a complete fake created by later writers to advance Christian interests.
1. The numbers refer to book, chapter and then section. Antiquities of the Jews can be found at Sacred Texts, Here. Passage 18, 3, 3, can be found Here. Passage 20, 9, 1, can be found Here.
2. Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 3, 3, Here.
3. IBID, 20, 9, 1, Here.
4. Eusebius, Church History, Book 1, ch. 11, s. 7-8, New Advent Here,. See also Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin books, London, 1965, Book 1, ch. 11, pp. 29.
5. IBID, New Advent.
6. Origen, Wikipedia Here.
7. See Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Mathew, Book 10, s. 17, Here, and Contra Celsus, Book 1, s. 47, Here.
8. IBID, Commentary….
9. IBID, Contra Celsus.
10. Whealy, Alice, The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic, New Testament Studies, v 54, pp. 573-590, at 574.)