What Did the Jewish Historian Josephus Really Say About Jesus?
3 Things Every Christian Should Know About Josephus and Jesus
by Jonathan Morrow
There you are having a great conversation with a friend about Christianity and how you know that Jesus existed without just saying “the Bibles says so.” You even name-dropped Josephus. And then this happens…
Friend: “Yea, another Christian friend of mind 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…
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