What Did the Jewish Historian Josephus Really Say About Jesus?

3 Things Every Christian Should Know About Josephus and Jesus

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There you are having a great conversation with a friend about Christianity and how you know that Jesus existed without just saying “the Bible says so.” You even name-dropped Josephus. And then this happens…

Friend: “Yea, another Christian friend of mine said something about Josephus. I had never heard of him. So I looked it up and found out that the passage by Josephus that mentions Jesus is disputed by scholars today.”

You (sweating now): “I hadn’t heard that before. My pastor just said Josephus shows that Jesus existed.”

Friend: “Maybe you should look it up and see what it says for yourself?”

You: “Yeah, looks like I should do that…”

Gulp…you weren’t ready for that one…

Who Was Josephus?

If you know who Josephus is, good for you! (virtual high five coming at you!)

If not, no worries! Here’s what you need to know about Josephus and why he matters to the conversation about Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Flavius Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian (37 – 100 AD).
  • He was a commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee and would later become a Roman citizen.
  • Was employed as a historian by the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.
  • Mentions Jesus in his historical writings (and his brother James cf. Antiquities 20.200).

The Disputed “Testimonium Flavianum” by Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64)

But as we learned from our conversation above, some of the comments about Josephus are disputed. This passage is SO famous it even has a fancy name: “The Testimonium Flavianum.” 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 Messiah. 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.” (Translation from Loeb Classical Library, italics mine)

The disputed parts of this passage I have highlighted and are in italics.

The problem is that a Jewish person would never say some of those things about Jesus. As historian Paul Maier observes, “no Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without having converted to Christianity.” In addition, the early Church father Origen believed that Josephus was never converted.

So was the whole thing a forgery invented by Christians? No, that would be an over reaction to what the evidence actually reveals. The claims in this passage will need to be toned down some, but not thrown out.

What Josephus Most Likely Said About Jesus of Nazareth

Whether we are talking about Alexander the Great, Plato, or Jesus–historical testimony always deals in probabilities. And that’s OK. Admitting this doesn’t undermine our ability to know history. It just recognizes the unique aspects of this important discipline.

As scholars have thought about this over the years, the picture has become clearer. Especially helpful is a passage of a 10th century Arabic manuscript of Josephus that was cited by historian Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1972:

“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 them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” (10th Century Arabic Text)

You can already see how this passage is more neutral concerning Jesus because it does not contain some of the disputed parts mentioned above. But it still tells us quite a bit about Jesus. A reading like this is very likely close to the original Josephus penned.

Here are some of the important facts we discover about Jesus here:

  • Jesus was a wise and virtuous man with a significant following of Jewish and non-Jewish disciples.
  • He was crucified under Pilate.
  • There were reports that he appeared to witnesses following his resurrection.
  • Some were claiming that he was the Messiah that the Jewish prophets had predicted.

3 Things Every Christian Should Know About Josephus and Jesus

I have intentionally just hit the high points–there is plenty more to say and discuss about the finer points. But honestly, you will rarely use more than this in an everyday conversation.

My goal is for you to be able to use this! Here are 3 important conclusions about Josephus and Jesus:

(1) Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian who talked about Jesus (and his brother James cf. Antiquities 20.200).

(2) This passage (Antiquities 18:63-64) is disputed and likely does contain some Christian interpolations (fancy word for some Christian edits or embellishments). You need to be aware of this so you are not blindsided by this skeptical  challenge to Jesus. Knowing this finer point of history will also give you more credibility in the conversation.

(3) Recognizing some Christian edits does not remove the historical core of what Josephus believed about Jesus. We are still on solid footing citing Josephus as a significant source of extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus. In fact, this text in Josephus removes any doubt that Jesus actually existed.

The Bottom Line: Our faith is rooted in history. Not only does this give us confidence personally, but it also gives us credibility when we talk to others about it. And that’s really good news.

Offering reasons for faith is really important. Check out some of my favorite resources for teenagers (and parents of teenagers) in this free guide:

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Who knew a Jewish historian named Josephus could be so helpful?  Two helpful sources to explore these topics further are: Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence by Robert E. Van Voorst and Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study by Darrell Bock and Gregory Herrick.