Many people are aware that Josephus, a Jewish historian from the late first century, mentions Jesus Christ. In fact, it’s often used as evidence that Jesus really existed. Of course, many of those same people are also aware that Josephus’s most detailed mention of Jesus, called the Testimonium Flavianum, has been embellished by a later Christian (perhaps Eusebius?). We know this because the passage says a number of things that no non-Christian would say, and Josephus was definitely not a Christian. Here it is:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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 Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
— Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3
I’ve highlighted the most suspicious phrases. There are different views on how much of the passage is authentic, but most scholars do think that Josephus wrote something about Jesus here. In part, this is because of a later passage that references Jesus in a way that indicates Josephus had already introduced him in some way:
…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…
— Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, 1
In 1971, the scholar Shlomo Pines directed people to a version of the Testimonium Flavianum found in a 10th century text from Asia Minor:
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous [or: his learning/knowledge was outstanding]. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But 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.
— John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. 373
This version seems much more in line with what you’d expect from a non-Christian historian, and it may be more in line with what Josephus actually wrote. However, you’ve noticed that portions of this are highlighted as well, and those areas represent phrases that still could have been inserted by later Christians. Or to state that more accurately, it may be the result of Christians fixing the initial additions so they aren’t so glaring. They certainly would have had opportunity, since this text was maintained by Christian scribes.
Anyway, while I find all that interesting, it’s not the main thing I wanted to talk about. I’ve known the preceding information for quite a while. But I’ve recently been reading Crossan’s book The Historical Jesus, and he happened to quote something else from Josephus that I found fascinating. Josephus writes a bit about John the Baptist, and while it’s a little lengthy, I’d like to quote the whole thing here:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.
Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Accordingly John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death. Now the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure with him.
— Jewish Antiquities, 18.116-119
I find it really interesting that Josephus has so much to say about John the Baptist, especially compared to how little he really says about Jesus. The emphasis seems flipped. The gospels portray John as someone who’s paving the way for Jesus. In fact, we’re led to believe that the coming of Jesus is almost the entirety of his message, but there’s no hint of that from Josephus. There’s no connection at all between the two men, as far as Josephus is concerned.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But if Jesus had really been divine, if he had really performed miracles too numerous to count (John 21:25), if he had fed and talked to many multitudes, and if his fame had spread around the region (Mark 1:28, etc), why wouldn’t Josephus have written more about him, especially since he was so aware of John the Baptist?
Anyway, I just found this interesting. I’d love to hear what you guys think. Am I making too much of this, or does it strike you as weird too?
1: Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p 373
2: Livius.org, Josephus on John the Baptist
3: Wikipedia.org, Josephus on Jesus