Josephus’ Sexed Up Dossier

As part of the evidence for the reliability of the Gospel’s testimony to Jesus, I’ve relied on a quote from the Jewish historian Josephus. It’s not the only material I use to attest the reliability of the New Testament documents. It’s one of a number. And it’s a good one. But it’s not an uncontroversial quote.

The quote I use is taken from his book Jewish Antiquities 18:.62-64. It’s often referred to as Testimonium Flavinium and it says this,

‘About that time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah-Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared’.

The leading American Ancient Historian Dr Edwin Yamauchi argues that there have been three trends within scholarship concerning this quote. [quoted in an interview with L. Strobel in ‘The Case for Christ’, Zondervan, p79]

  1. The early Christians thought that it was a thoroughly authentic attestation of Jesus’ identity and resurrection.
  2. During the Enlightenment the entire passage was questioned by some scholars.
  3. But there’s now a remarkable consensus amongst both Jewish and Christian scholars that the passage as a whole is authentic although there may have been some interpolations.

Some historians, quite understandably, have an issue with the italicised, emboldened text. They say it’s been ‘doctored’. And they may have a point. Somewhere along the line a well meaning Christian copyist has ‘sexed up the dossier’ with a few extra phrases. At least that’s how it appears. In so doing he may have turned Josephus’ neutral or negative statements about Jesus into positive ones. However, there’s widespread consensus amongst the scholars that Josephus wrote the main sentences of this quote.

In his book ‘The Truth About Jesus’, the historian Dr Paul Barnett says this,

‘While many scholars doubt that Josephus would us ‘faith’ language about Jesus, suggesting that Christians have subsequently made additions to the text, few reject it outright. At the very least even the most sceptical see a core of authentic information about Jesus. The passage is to be found in all original manuscripts and in earliest external citation of it’. (Eusebius, History of the Church i.11)

Something worth throwing into the mix is that there’s a tenth century Arabic manuscript which contains the more hesitant words ‘perhaps’ and ‘they reported that’. This would mean the original would look like this.

‘About that time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was perhaps the Messiah-Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day they reported that he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared’.

No Christian copyist would have been so hesitant. After all, Christians are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah-Christ and that he did appear alive after three days. We’re not reticent about Jesus’ Messiahship and resurrection. These things are crucial to us. And so there’s reason to believe that this Arabic manuscript does in fact preserve Josephus’ point. Two sections later in his work Josephus again mentions Jesus. There’s no hint of modification by later copyists. He describes Jesus using similar words as the Arabic translation, ‘the so called Messiah Christ’. This strengthens the case for the inclusion of the phrase ‘he was perhaps the Messiah-Christ’ in the previous section. Josephus is speaking about someone that he’s already referred to by that title.

If this was the case, how would we then account for the interpolations in the Greek manuscript above? The italicised section would then not be additions of a Christian copyist but improvements. He’d be taking away the hesitancy. But he would be adding to it.

As one good atheist friend of mine asked me, ‘if it’s contested why include it?’

For the simple reason that even without the allegedly ‘dodgoire’ bits, he corroborates the Gospels. Regardless of what we think about the translation copying issue Josephus does at least provide important, independent testimony to Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, wonder worker and martyr during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Josephus states that

  1. Jesus was a wise man and a teacher, in the guise of a devout rabbi.
  2. Jesus performed miracles, which is what the translations ‘he wrought surprising feats’ or ‘accomplished startling deeds’ appears to suggest.
  3. Jesus achieved considerable popularity with a following that showed no sign of disappearing after his death.
  4. Jesus was opposed by the establishment who instigated the case against him.
  5. Jesus underwent Roman trial procedure and so he was executed by crucifixion.

This is what the Gospel records say, which means that our suspicion about their reliability ought to be moderated somewhat!

Further Reading

The following are very readable introductions to the issues.

  • The Truth About Jesus, Paul Barnett
  • The Christ Files, John Dickson
  • The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel

2 thoughts on “Josephus’ Sexed Up Dossier

  1. andywoo January 18, 2010 / 4:46 pm

    Thanks for this Perks – very useful stuff. The more combative atheists are certainly keen on writing off Josephus entirely and it’s important they don’t get it ‘thrown out of court’. External verification of Jesus opens all sorts of doors as to why could his body not be produced? why did so many follow him? why did people give their lives for him? Would the gospels have been accepted if blatant lies, when referring to so well known a (recent) figure? The way around all this has increasingly been for opponents to try the previously unthinkable – to remove Jesus from history altogether. Thus Josephus is vital.

  2. Andy & Tori January 20, 2010 / 10:55 am

    Have you read John Dickson’s, ‘Jesus: A Short Life’? Its a pretty good round up of all the evidence “out there” for the truth of the Christian gospel and Jesus’ life in particular. He takes the approach of an ancient historian, not just a Christian, and the result is very credible and accessible – and persuasive.

    He covers all the ancient texts in some detail including Josephus, Q etc

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