Monday, March 1, 2010

Josephus and the Testimonium Flavianum

Flavius Josephus is perhaps the most highly respected and most extensively quoted Jewish historian of all time, he lived from 37-100 C.E. One paragraph in particular from his work by the name "The Antiquities of the Jews" is a favourite of many Christian apologists. It reads as follows:

"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."
– Josephus (aka Joseph ben Matthias) The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3: the so-called Testimonium Flavianum.
 At first glance it would appear that Josephus is confirming nearly every aspect of the gospel story in one paragraph, but there are several problems with this. Josephus was an orthodox Jew, he did not believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and besides this one paragraph, Christianity is not mentioned once in all the rest of the collected works of Josephus.
Scholars came to the conclusion a long time ago that the Testimonium Flavianum was fraudulently added into the text at a much later date by Christians. It is worthy to note that the works of nearly every single other Jewish historian that was a contemporary of Josephus had their work burned at the hands of the early church.
The paragraph is exceptionally out of place in Antiquities 18, which is all about misfortunate events that happened to the Jews during that time. In the chapter where the testimonium was inserted, Josephus mentions about a Jewish protest against Pilate where the Romans attacked the Jews with concealed weapons. Out of nowhere appears a paragraph about the Messiah, then immediately afterwards, Josephus writes "And about the same time another terrible misfortune confounded the Jews". In fact the chapter reads much better with the Testimonium removed completely, then the line I just quoted makes sense.

On top of the contextual criticism, is the fact that not a single person quoted the Testimonium until the 4th century, over 200 years after Josephus' death. Not even Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria or Tertullian make a reference to this paragraph. Origen, one of the early church fathers from the third century, quoted extensively from the works of Josephus, but didn't quote this paragraph. Origen even wrote that Josephus didn't believe in Jesus.

There are a few other criticisms of the passage in Antiquities 18 that I will not go into, but I think this is sufficient enough to show that Josephus cannot be used as evidence that the Christian account is true, as the Testimonium Flavianum is obviously a fake.


  1. So not one you ever used in your apologetics days? I think actually with that next line it doesn't necessarily make it a fake, just a very funny and stinging piece of sarcasm?

  2. I did use Josephus as a while, but I did realise that it wasn't authentic when I was still a Christian, and so stopped using it as evidence after that.

  3. It's quite a claim to say the T-Flav "is obviously a fake". I don't think qualified scholars make habit of disputing over things obvious to the layman. I think what is obvious (if anything at all) is that the passage is semi-authentic and semi-not.

  4. Semi-authentic? It's completely out of place, the language is unlike anything else used by josephus and is littered with hyperboles. He never mentions anything about Christianity outside of this passage. It wasn't quoted until the 4th century, when christians had quoted extensively from his other works.
    It is obviously a fake, and isn't even close to being semi-authentic.

  5. Very informative, both in relation to Josephus and you Shreddakj.

    A former apologist? Say it ain't so!

  6. I'll say again, KJ, in bold I don't think qualified scholars make habit of disputing over things obvious to the layman. The layman being you or I. And the scholars say it's partially authentic.

    Have a read if you haven't already. You've no doubt heard of CARM from your days prior to your de-conversion, as you were quite the hardcore creationist/apologist as far as I'm aware. Anyway, I think their point in a nutshell is that Josephus wrote on Jesus and that early Christians manipulated and changed some of the text to be more in favor with Jesus. Hence they speculate partial authenticity.

    Oh, and lastly if anyone just sees Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry at the top of page I've hyperlinked and immediately writes it off as "Nup, they're full of shit. They're bias." then I do pity you, as you obviously have trust issues. I'm a Christian, and I don't write off websites set up by Atheists. In fact I enjoy them, they're like a breath of fresh air on occasion.

  7. You don't think it's interesting that Christians would be so... insecure... about the Testimonium that they'd have to fudge some details about what was supposedly already in there? What about the portions of the bible that say "don't bear false witness?" Do those not apply when altering texts in your favor? Why was what was supposedly written not good enough?

    It's still pretty significant that nobody until the 4th century quoted the passage, as it seems like the earliest and *best* manuscript even mentioning the guy. That makes me think it was a complete addition - not just a fact-fudging. Ryan, do you know of any non-Christian scholar arguing for the complete or partial authenticity of the passage?

  8. To answer your question, Drew, the Jewish Hungarian historian, Geza Vermes, a specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other texts of the period, and known for actively questioning Christian teaching on the historical Jesus, has written that, in his opinion, this excerpt from Josephus was partially manipulated but is partially authentic. This guy is an expert in this field and has no bias towards Christianity at all (in fact many argue that he is biased against Christianity).

    I'll not repeat the text quoted by KJ (I'm sure you can scroll up!) but Vermes' research indicates that what Josephus ACTUALLY wrote went something like this:

    "About this time, there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was one who performed paradoxical deeds and was the teacher of those who accept the truth gladly [ie 'sophists', those who sought wisdom]. He won over many Jews [Vermes speculates that "and many Greeks" may have been included here]. He was called [or "believed to be"] the 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. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

    One of the early Christian writers, Origen, quoted from Josephus but did not quote the Testimonium Flavianum. Many have pointed to this as evidence that the entire text was a later excerpt. However, Origen does write that Josephus "did not accept Jesus as Christ", which some scholars believe is a reference to the pre-manipulated Testimonium where Josephus says "He was called the Christ", and which was later massaged to "He was the Christ". This also supports Josephus' only other reference to Jesus, the "so-called Christ", in Antiquities 20:200.

    The fact that this text was not quoted in the few works of Christian writers between 100-300 AD that have survived to the present day is not proof that it did not exist. There are many works which we know absolutely nothing about from this period, and there is no evidence that any of these writers had read Josephus' Antiquities at all. Just because a book had been written by 100 AD doesn't mean that everyone in the world would have read it. Scholarship on this area (from people such as Feldman, Whealey, Hardwick as a few examples) indicates a disagreement over whether any of the Christian authors of the time whose works survive today (such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin the Martyr, Clement of Alexandria) had even read Antiquities; Whealey and Harwick's examination of many of these texts indicate that they hadn't.
    Other linguistohistoricist (there's probably a more proper title!) scholars such as John Meier have supported Vermes' corrected text as fitting well with Josephus' style, although some, including Guignebert, have said that this is not hard to do! The fact that the passage does not seem to fit with the rest of the text is actually more of an indication of its authenticity than not; Josephus' work was often quite patchy and jumped from topic to topic and paragraph to unconnected paragraph, and some argue that had the entire passage been an insertion then the previous and following lines would have been massaged as well to make it fit better.

    Overall, then, the majority (though by no means a vast majority) of modern scholars believe that Josephus did mention Jesus as an historical figure, but that later Christians manipulated what he'd written for their own purposes.

    There's a good discussion on this topic on the official Josephus website:

  9. Even if I give Christians every benefit of the doubt on this one, it still doesn't strengthen the case too much. Josephus was still not a contemporary by any means and even if he was 100% correct in his reporting, we still don't have much to go on. For all I care, the passage could be completely authentic and true and it wouldn't make me believe the gospel stories any more than I do now.

    It's just rather sad that this is the best that Christians have to offer when it comes to extra-biblical sources. After all, it's good to know that the person you're dedicating your life to actually existed in the first place, as a mere starting point.

  10. Well, some people will insist that the sky is blue, while others will point out that it's actually just our perception of the reflection of light against the blackness of space, and even others will argue that "blue" is just an artificial construct anyway and that everyone has their own "blue".
    People will always see what they want to see. Just don't hold it against people who think they see something you don't.

  11. The comparison between the blue sky and the theist position is not a very accurate one. You may view the sky as blue, or red, but I consider that a subjective statement. But if you think there is a god that resembles something like the christian god, you are making an objective truth claim, one that cannot be justified solely by subjective means. An objective truth and a subjective view are *very* different.

  12. This is why it is so frustrating and at the same time entirely pointless arguing with religious types.

    Their beliefs are entirely non-falsifiable, because it is impossible to prove that a god doesn't exist. The fact that it goes both ways making it impossible to prove one does exist doesn't seem to worry them either. It is almost a badge of honour for many Christians I have dealt with that there is no way to prove their position (growing up in a Christian family, you can imagine I met many people like this...).

    The best that an agnostic atheist like me can hope for, is that enough people are prevented from being indoctrinated into a religion this generation, so the next generation can be further ahead already.

    The scientific method has a long way to go before the average person trusts it entirely. It basically works against 'common sense' in many ways, so it isn't entirely unreasonable that people from a superstitious past have trouble accepting it.

    One day though, level headed reason will win out over superstition and bronze age shenanigans. Whether or not we will be alive to see it, the best we can do is just fight the good fight and keep logic at the forefront. Sometimes this means arguing with theists, as pointless as that is... but the argument might be noticed by someone on the fence, and might help them to make a logical decision. And then it was worth the effort!

  13. The Copy/Paste Flip FlopMarch 10, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    This is why it is so frustrating and at the same time entirely pointless arguing with atheist types.

    Their beliefs are entirely non-falsifiable, because it is impossible to prove that a god does exist. The fact that it goes both ways making it impossible to prove one doesn't exist doesn't seem to worry them either. It is almost a badge of honour for many Atheists I have dealt with that there is no way to prove their position (growing up in a Atheist family, you can imagine I met many people like this...).

    The best that an Christian like me can hope for, is that enough people are prevented from being indoctrinated into atheism this generation, so the next generation can be further ahead already.

    The Bible will probably never be trusted entirely by a scientific person. It basically works with 'common sense' in many ways, so it isn't entirely unreasonable that people from a scientific past have trouble accepting it.

    One day though, Jesus will win out over non-belief and methodological naturalism. Whether or not we will be alive to see it, the best we can do is just fight the good fight and keep Jesus at the forefront. Sometimes this means arguing with atheists, as pointless as that is... but the argument might be noticed by someone on the fence, and might help them to make a spiritual decision. And then it was worth the effort!


    New Atheists have an agenda, a mission... and they love to proselytize....just like the religious.

  14. You're so clever, I bet your mother is oh so very proud of you.

    If you actually have something intelligent to say, go ahead and say it. It seems that you're about as witty and smart as the children who copy each other to try and annoy people.
    Child 1: "Don't!"
    Child 2: "Don't!"
    C1: "Stop it!"
    C2: "Stop it!"
    C1: "Stop copying me!"
    C2: "Stop copying me!"

  15. Flip flop fails.

    You assume all Atheists are out to prove that gods do not exist, this is false. Most Atheists are simply saying they don't believe in gods. The burden of proof is not on them, it sits strictly on the shoulders of those claiming a given God exists; trying to shift the burden of proof to the weak atheist position is a dishonest tactic.

  16. P.S. New Atheism cannot be a religion, or anything like it. At all. Ever. It lacks the attributes.

    Moreover, New Atheism can barely, if at all, proselytize, since it isn't a religion. Saying that New Atheists proselytize is like saying that your neighbor is a proselytizer because he tries to change you from a Colts fan, to being a Vikings fan.

    Stop projecting.

  17. Ha.

    You assume all religious people are out to prove that God exists, this is false. Most of the religious are simply saying they believe in God.

    Who designated your burden of proof? A lazy atheist I suppose. The burden of proof lies on both parties. Both need to try and "prove" that they're correct.

    New Atheism might not strictly be a religion but it is a religious view with religious implications.

    Your Colts fan? He is indeed proselytizing to the Vikings fan.

  18. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence.
    The burden of proof is most certainly on the person making the claim, you seem to have trouble understanding this. Let me give you an example. A snake oil salesman says to a potential customer: "This snake-oil will cure cancer, and provides eternal salvation!" It is then up to the salesman to provide evidence to back up his claim, it is not up to the skeptic to refute his claim until he provides evidence. As has been said before, "that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence".

    A religious view with religious implications? I can live with that, seeing as 'New Atheism' is a view about religion that says "religion is man-made, futile and petty" the implications of such a view is that religion is wrong. I can live with that, just don't go around labelling things that aren't religions as 'religions'.

    Proselytizing has a distinct religious connotation and has a distinct religious usage. We have other terms for other circumstances, such as peer-pressure etc. your intentionally incorrect usage shows you have an axe to grind.

  19. Any claim which is made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. - Hitchens

    Lots of god, raptor jesus.

  20. Raptor Jesus went extinct for your sins.

  21. You mean a supernatural claim requires supernatural evidence. Supernatural evidence is an oxymoron to you so what a stupid thing to request.

    Your entire blog is one massively loud, grinding Gimli axe.

  22. No, I do not mean supernatural, I mean extraordinary. I used the word for a reason. As the other commenter said, stop projecting.

    Yes, I do have a massive battleaxe to grind, I spent 18 years of my life following a religion. At least I can admit it.

  23. If you project/grind your axe at religion, it will project/grind back.

    "There is a god" isn't an extraordinary claim. It's a supernatural claim.

    "An alien abducted me" is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

    What's your reason for using the word then.

  24. Are you really that stupid?


    beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established: extraordinary costs.
    exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable: extraordinary speed; an extraordinary man.
    (of an official, employee, etc.) outside of or additional to the ordinary staff; having a special, often temporary task or responsibility: minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary.


  25. Are YOU really that stupid??

    -Religion and/or the idea of a god is NOT beyond the usual, the majority of the world consider themselves to be religious.
    -Religion and/or the idea of a god IS ordinary, regular and has been WELL established on this planet for THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

    A lot longer than the catchy phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

  26. I do not require evidence for religion or the idea of god. I do not consider the idea of god or religion itself to be out of the ordinary.

    The actual existence of god however, has never been proven. No evidence has been brought to the table. As far as I can see, god exists only as an idea within the minds of human beings.

    Just because people have believed something for thousands of years doesn't make it true, this is what we have science for.

  27. You should have an apostrophe between blog and s.

    It should read "This blog's gay."

  28. your blogs wanky!! fucking bullshit your a big rim job anonymous

  29. That was quite possibly the most insightful comment I've ever received. Thank you.

  30. "Anonymous" - grow some balls and actually post your name to your comments (or if you happen to be female, grow a vulva.)
    This petty hate ridden drivel that you expound simply shows you to be a narrow minded bigot who refuses to entertain any notion of an educated debate.
    Shreddakj knows that I disagree with a lot of what he writes, but he also knows that I respect his views and that I welcome the debate which he is encouraging. Your blathering does not advance the cause, it simply helps prove the propensity towards mindless drivel which tends to dominate most of these kinds of arguments.
    If you don't have the courage to actually write what you mean and own it, then don't bother contributing at all.

  31. Just having fun mate.March 15, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    It was purely a joke to get a reaction - I actually like this blog! I am sorry if none of you saw the funny side.

  32. I don't even know what posts you're owning up to lol. Was it the "this blogs gay" and the "your blogs wanky!! fucking bullshit your a big rim job anonymous" or was it the @[name]/FlipFlop posts. The gay/wanky ones I literally laughed out loud. The other ones irked me.