Josephus on Jesus


The so called Testimonium Flavianum. This is the only direct discussion of Jesus to be found in the writings of Josephus. Unfortunately, the text as we have it in extant copies of Josephus' Antiquities appears to have been dramatically re-written from a Christian point of view. (The writings of Josephus were brought down to us from antiquity not by the Jewish community, but by the Christians). The second column contains an Arabic quotation of the Josephus passage that has a much less Christian flavor. Some scholars have argued that the Arabic version has a more likely claim to originality.

Although that is a strong possibility, it should be noted that even the Arabic version is a good deal kinder to Jesus than Josephus usually is to messianic claimants. In addition it is harder to see why the Christian scribe would feel so compelled to change it. It is possible that the original may have been much more insulting, in keeping with Josephus' normal pattern, and that the Greek and Arabic versions are simply two different recensions of a Christian rewrite. R. Eisler has made an effort to reconstruct an 'original' that might have, given Christian revision, served as a base for the version that survives in Greek. It is, of course, entirely hypothetical, and no textual evidence exists to support it, but it does fit in better with Josephus' usual pattern and language, as well as the general context of the passage.

On the other hand, it may be possible to 'save' the Arabic version. Particularly if we remove the last sentence (accordingly ...wonders) as a pious expansion, we are left with a non-committal report on the martyrdom at Roman hands of a pious Jew. This would not be at all inconsistent with Josephus' style, particularly if he discounted as later followers' embellishments the claims made by Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. This last suggestion is to some extent crippled by the less controversial reference in Antiquities 20 if it is genuine (see below).

Greek Version

Josephus, Antiquities 18.63, probably in a Christian redaction
Tr. I. H. Feldman, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 9, pp. 49ff.
About this 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 Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. 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 cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.

Arabic Version

Arabic summary, presumably of Antiquities 18.63. From Agapios' Kitab al-'Unwan ("Book of the Title," 10th c.).
The translation belongs to Shlomo Pines. See also James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism.
Similarly Josephus the Hebrew. For he says in the treatises that he has written on the governance of the Jews:
At this time there was a 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 themafter his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

R. Eisler's Reconstruction

Same text, in a less complementary modern scholarly reconstruction.
R. Eisler, The Messiah Jesus, (tr. A. H. Krappe), 1931, p. 61. Quoted from the Loeb Classical Library , vol. 9, p. 48.
Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man, who was the most monstrous of men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man has ever done.... He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight.... And he seduced many Jews and many also of the Greek nation, and was regarded by them as the Messiah.... And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold -- these and ten thousand other wonderful things -- concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called 'Messianists' after him is not extinct.


The only usually undisputed allusion to Jesus in Josephus is actually only a passing reference in the context of the trial of James. James is identified, not as James son of ???? as one would normally expect but as brother of Jesus. While this passage is more likely to be authentic than the one above, it is not without problems. Origen knows and cites this passage, and is unaware of the 'Testimonium Flavianum' above, providing some evidence for its presence in the Antiquities before its Christian reworking. On the other hand, Origen's version contains the unlikely addition in which Josephus also says that it is as punishment for the execution of James that Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. The possibility suggests itself that even Origen's Josephus has undergone Christian reworking, simply of a different variety, in which, perhaps, the insulting Testimonium has been expunged, and James has been introduced as a pious Jewish hero.

Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1
Since Ananus was that kind of person, and because he perceived an opportunity with Festus having died and Albinus not yet arrived, he called a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought James, the brother of Jesus (who is called 'Messiah') along with some others. He accused them of transgressing the law, and handed them over for stoning.

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