(The following is part of a 30+page rebuttal to the material in Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? directly discussing my work.)
Ehrman on Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum
Here I will address Ehrman’s section on the Jewish historian Josephus’s supposed mention of Jesus in the “Testimonium Flavianum” (Antiquities 18.3.3 [Whiston]; 18.63). As we would expect, Bart believes the Testimonium is genuine, with the typical Christian interpolations.
Following is the original Greek Testimonium Flavianum (“TF”), from the manuscript Flavius Josephus. Flavii Iosephi opera. B. Niese. Berlin. Weidmann. 1892:
Γίνεται δὲ κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Ἰησοῦς σοφὸς ἀνήρ, εἴγε ἄνδρα αὐτὸν λέγειν χρή: ἦν γὰρ παραδόξων ἔργων ποιητής, διδάσκαλος ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡδονῇ τἀληθῆ δεχομένων, καὶ πολλοὺς μὲν Ἰουδαίους, πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ ἐπηγάγετο: ὁ χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν. καὶ αὐτὸν ἐνδείξει τῶν πρώτων ἀνδρῶν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν σταυρῷ ἐπιτετιμηκότος Πιλάτου οὐκ ἐπαύσαντο οἱ τὸ πρῶτον ἀγαπήσαντες: ἐφάνη γὰρ αὐτοῖς τρίτην ἔχων ἡμέραν πάλιν ζῶν τῶν θείων προφητῶν ταῦτά τε καὶ ἄλλα μυρία περὶ αὐτοῦ θαυμάσια εἰρηκότων. εἰς ἔτι τε νῦν τῶν Χριστιανῶν ἀπὸ τοῦδε ὠνομασμένον οὐκ ἐπέλιπε τὸ φῦλον.
Ehrman (59-60) provides a translation of the TF from “the best manuscript of Josephus”:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3)
If that passage in its entirety doesn’t sound like a breathless Christian advertisement, I don’t know what does! In any event, since historicizers – believers and evemerists alike – become so hung up on this passage, arguing that it proves Jesus’s existence, we need to address this issue continually.
After citing the passage, Ehrman (60) says:
The problems with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus…. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. But this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make: that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he arose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. In the judgment of most scholars, there is simply no way Josephus the Jew would or could have written such things. So how did these comments get into his writings?
Ehrman goes on to explain, “When Christian scribes copied the text, they added a few words here and there to make sure that the reader would get the point. This is that Jesus, the superhuman messiah raised from the dead as the scriptures predicted.”
Such a claim represents the perfect argument for Ehrman to proffer, since he adheres to the evemerist perspective that Jesus was a real person, a mundane Jewish prophet and wannabe messiah, to whose biography his ardent followers added a series of supernatural fairytales.
As seen elsewhere in his book, as concerns the lack of contemporary record for this “wise man” and “doer of startling deeds,” the only way Ehrman can maintain a “historical” Jesus, in fact, is to minimize him to a point where he is almost meaningless, a pathetic shell of a “man” in whom no Christian believer would ever put faith. Hence, Christians will not rejoice in Ehrman’s anti-mythicist work.
Ehrman (60) further states:
The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus’s Antiquities.
The majority of scholars of early Judaism, and experts on Josephus, think that it was the former–that one or more Christian scribes “touched up” the passage a bit.
At this point, Ehrman provides a Meier-type “original” TF, with the supposed Christian interpolations removed:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
Here is John P. Meier’s reconstructed TF, with the purported Christian interpolations in bold:
About this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
Meier’s reconstruction is not the only one, as there have been others with even more parts removed, and still other scholars, such as Alice Whealey, strike out less, such as only the sentence “He was the messiah.” Meanwhile, many Christian apologists contend for the TF’s authenticity in its entirety.
Ehrman thus seems clear that Christians were interpolating ancient texts with material they likewise added into the gospel story: To wit, supernatural claims. We are in concurrence here, except to the degree of interpolation. Bart must realize that his views are as repugnant to Christian conservatives as are those of mythicists, and there is little reason not to go further and conclude that, in the case of the TF, those interpolating scribes wrote the entire passage, to be inserted into the text by subsequent copyists. The only reason evemerists must cling to this “partial interpolation” theory is because it suits their argument, not because it is scientifically sound.
Note that even this sanitized Josephus sounds far too much like something a Christian would write. The English translation of “condemned him to the cross” does not help this impression, since the original word is “stauros,” which would be better translated as “stake.” Perhaps a better rendering would be: “Pilate…executed him with the stake.”
A ‘wise man,’ ‘doer of startling deeds’ and ‘teacher of truth’ merits little interest?
There are many reasons to suspect the Josephus passage/Testimonium Flavianum as a whole to be a forgery, a recounting of which can be found in my excerpted article “The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled” and in the writings of Earl Doherty and Ken Olson, among others. I will only address a few of the arguments against authenticity here. For example, it has been noted previously that Josephus uses the exact phrase σοφὸς ἀνήρ or “wise man” elsewhere at Ant. 10.237, in a discussion of the biblical prophet Daniel (and the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar), about whom Josephus waxes on over several pages (Ant. 10.10 [Whiston]). It is Daniel here who is the σοφὸς ἀνήρ or “wise man,” and he is afforded tremendous respect.
Yet, later in Josephus a mere 89 words – or only 60, in the “uninterpolated” passage – are reserved for this “wise man” and “doer of startling deeds,” Jesus Christ, who had an entire “tribe” named after him (using an anachronistic term, as we shall see)! Meanwhile, Josephus writes at length in the next section about “a woman named Paulina,” a great beauty whose seedy ravishing in the temple of Isis at Rome warrants almost 700 words.
Moreover, Josephus indicts his own people – the “leading men among us” – as fatally accusing the wondrous and wise Jesus, basically agreeing that these Jews were “Christ-killers,” a calumny used in later centuries by Christians. It is difficult to believe Josephus would not have explored that admission of guilt to see if it was merited.
The intrusiveness of the TF
Ehrman confines his analysis of the mythicist perspective vis-à-vis Josephus largely to Doherty’s work on the subject, describing certain aspects of it as “weak” and ignoring them all to come back to the Meier solution. Bart has an interesting way of minimizing the importance of some aspect merely by his dictum. A case in point is the intrusiveness of the TF passage in Josephus. Citing Doherty’s observation that writers in antiquity made footnote-like digressions that interrupted the previous train of thought, Ehrman (62) basically concludes that the TF represents just such a Josephan digression and then indicates that the Christian scribal interpolation-theory is thus of no importance.
I maintain that the fact the TF appears to be an awkward intrusion breaking the flow of the texts most certainly is of tremendous importance and not to be so easily dismissed. If the TF is a forgery in toto – and I continue to take that position – then its intrusiveness would seem exactly as it does. To put it another way, the TF interrupts Josephus’s flow precisely as we would expect it to do, if it were an interpolation. Ehrman has already agreed that Christians interpolated into Josephus, at least the Christianized bits of the TF. It is only because it is expedient to his argument that the entire TF could not have been likewise interpolated, and there remains no evidence that it was not interpolated into Josephus.
The entire passage smacks of intrusion and uncharacteristic behavior on the part of Josephus. He treats of other subjects at length; yet, Josephus hiccups over someone of the caliber of even the “pared-down” TF? Would he really stop there in his purported digression, which from its still-giddy edited form indicates a level of excitation on his part?
Claiming Christians interpolated the TF in whole is not much different than contending they tinkered with it in part. If they are capable of partial interpolation for informational or propaganda purposes, they are capable of whole interpolation for the same.
Was the word ‘Christians’ even in currency then?
The contention that the entire TF is an interpolation becomes even stronger when we look at the emergence of the word “Christians” into the historical record. As we can see, the word “Christians” remains in the pared-down version of the TF, the original Greek being the plural possessive Χριστιανῶν. The supposed first time the word “Christians” appears is in the book of Acts (11:26), which relates that the Christians were first so-called at the Syrian city of Antioch. In fact, the word “Christians” appears nowhere else in the Bible, while “Christian” can only be found at Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. Whereas the conservative mainstream places the composition of the biblical book of “Acts of the Apostles” at the end of the first century, there is no historical/literary evidence for its existence until the end of the second century, at which point the Antiochene patriarch Theophilus himself defines the word “Christian.” From the scientific evidence we currently possess, the word is apparently a late invention.
Moreover, the evidence points to the appropriate biblical term as “Chrestians,” not “Christians.” In this regard, if we look at the Codex Sinaiticus (Acts 11:26), one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Bible, dating to the fourth century, we can see that the original word is “Chrestians,” with the “e” or eta (Η) erased and replaced by an “i” or iota (Ι).
The same “Chrestian to Christian” chicanery has happened with the other two passages in the NT containing the word “Christian,” i.e., Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. These are both quite obviously late books – 1 Peter likewise does not emerge clearly in the historical/literary record until after the middle of the second century, and even then the word “Chrestian” appears to be a new moniker for these followers of Chrestos, the “Good” or “Useful.”
Again, the Greek Testimonium cited above uses the word “Christians,” and we would be very surprised if the term appeared in the original Josephus, since it is obvious these earlier followers would have been Chrestians. Of course, one could argue that by the time of the earliest extant manuscript of Josephus, dating to the 11th century, the scribes would have “corrected” the text to be in line with the accepted “Christians,” rather than “Chrestians.”
However, there remains the problem with the date when Acts first clearly appears in the historical record, which, despite the wishful thinking of Christian apologists and mainstream scholars, does not occur until, again, the end of the second century. At this time, Theophilus (d. 183-5) writes a definition of the word – which must have been “Chrestians” in his original Greek. (One of the chapters (12) in book 1 of Theophilus’s Autolycus is called “The meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”) Note that this is the same “Theophilus” whom several mythicists and other scholars have suggested is the person addressed by the author of Luke-Acts, meaning those texts were not written until the end of the second century, when Theophilus thrived. And, indeed, that is when these texts clearly emerge in the historical/literary record. (See my book Who Was Jesus? for a discussion of Theophilus and Luke-Acts.)
Alice Whealey and the TF
In preparation for my Christ Con revision, I spent quite some time pouring over Dr. Alice Whealey’s book Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, since she is held up as presenting a definitive study of this issue. I ended up with over 100 pages of analysis, which will be turned into a monograph of its own. Ehrman (64) mentions Whealey briefly, but in fact he does not concur with her conclusions, although he does not say so in the present work.
In brief, Whealey argues that the TF is almost entirely genuine, minus the “He was the Christ/messiah” sentence. Obviously, there are problems with such a perspective, including the rest of the patently Christian enthusiasm in which Josephus surely would not have engaged. Moreover, if the rest of the TF is genuine, there simply remains no reason Josephus would not have expounded further upon such a wondrous individual who fulfilled the prophets and arose from the dead! Again, right after this brief section, Josephus dives into a long and tedious discussion of the ravishing of the beautiful and rich Paulina in the temple of Isis at Rome. Although this latter passage is instrumental in illustrating the indecent shenanigans of the wealthy elite and religionists, why would Josephus dedicate so much time to this account, while briefly summarizing one of the most amazing people he had ever come across – a fellow Jew of great wisdom and doer of startling deeds to whom many Jews and Greeks had supplicated themselves – as his purported writing indicates?
Whealey also focuses on why the TF is never mentioned before Church historian Eusebius (c. 263-339), arguing that the other Church fathers give no indication of reading book 18 of the Antiquities, so why should they mention it? She then concludes that Origen – who did read book 18 and who specifically states that Josephus does not believe Jesus was the Christ – must have known about the TF. Here is why Whealey removes only the “He was the Christ” sentence, because Origen, whom she concludes knew the TF, says Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ. Despite the indepth research she presents, we still have no proof that Origen knew the TF, minus the sentence “He was the Christ.” Moreover, if Origen did know the TF, there then remains no reason why he would not discuss it and why the fathers following him would have been oblivious to book 18 and uninterested in the TF.
Whealey asks a good question when she wonders why Origen would bring up Jesus while discussing Josephus, if there was no reference to him at all in the Jewish historian’s works. It is possible that Origen was referring to one of the other Jesuses in Josephus, possibly even the Old Testament hero Joshua, revered for bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land and treated of at length by the Jewish historian. The Greek word for “messiah,” christos, was not limited to Jesus Christ but can be found in the Old Testament/Septuagint around 40 times, referring to a number of OT heroes, including King David and the Persian king Cyrus. It is possible that Origen’s comment was simply an offhand remark about how there was nothing at all in Josephus concerning Jesus of Nazareth, implying that the Jewish historian obviously did not consider Jesus to be the Christ, since he did not even write about him. It could even be something as simple as a reference to the other “Jesus” in the section about “James the brother” (Ant. 20.9.1) – a “Jesus” that need not be Jesus of Nazareth but could very well be the one mentioned in the same chapter (Ant. 20.9.4), Jesus the son of Gamaliel, the successor of Jesus the son of Damneus. The bottom line is that there is no hard scientific evidence that Origen knew the TF and that it remains unknown in the historical record until Eusebius.
Earlier stories about Jesus?
According to Erhman, the TF may be genuine, without the Christianized bits as above. However, he does not think that the text suffices to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus. Says he (65):
The payoff is that most scholars continue to be convinced that Josephus did indeed write about Jesus, probably in something like the pared-down version that I quote above.
But that is not the main point I want to make about the Testimonium. My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE – some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death – a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation. There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly did not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of any kind (there weren’t any). But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier. So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus.
So, whether or not the TF is authentic is irrelevant as it proves nothing more than late hearsay, passed along for decades – that is essentially the mythicist position on Josephus as well. Ehrman’s “lots and lots of reasons” he presents later consist of circular reasoning and the uncritical acceptance of the earliest mainstream dates for the canonical gospels: To wit, the Lukan prologue claims “many” had attempted to write the “narrative,” and since Luke’s gospel obviously must have existed by the end of the first century, these many narratives provide proof that there were numerous stories circulating before that time!
The fact that the canonical gospel of Luke is nowhere to be found in the historical/literary record until the end of the second century might actually account for those “many” narratives, and, as I show in Who Was Jesus?, various Church fathers such as Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome associated these “many narratives” with the gospels of various second-century individuals, such as Basilides, Cerinthus, Merinthus and Apelles. Thus, we remain without any credible scientific evidence of such extrabiblical stories about Jesus of Nazareth during the first century.
As concerns Josephus, after attempting to prove that the Jewish historian does indeed mention Jesus, Ehrman (66) remarks:
There is no reason to think if Jesus lived that Josephus must have mentioned him. He doesn’t mention most Jews of the first century…
We agree, but he does mention some 20 other Jesuses from the first century to centuries earlier! Nevertheless, it is good to know that there is no reason to suspect that Josephus must have mentioned Jesus.
The fact is that even the “partial-interpolation theory” admits Christians were tinkering with ancient texts, altering histories to suit their purposes. In pronouncing the TF a forgery in toto, we are claiming the same thing to a more significant and scientifically founded extent.
— Religion and History (@AcharyaS) January 13, 2014