The Jesus Passages in Josephus – a Case Study, part 2m – ”Testimonium Flavianum”: The Church Fathers’ knowledge; The Syriac and Arabic translations, Agapius and Michael

Part 1
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Part 2a Part 2b Part 2c Part 2d
Part 2e Part 2f Part 2g Part 2h
Part 2i Part 2j Part 2k Part 2l
Part 2m Part 2n Part 2o Part 2p
Part 2q Part 2r Part 2s Part 2t
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Part 3a Part 3b Part 3c Part 3d
Part 3e Part 3f Part 3g Part 3h
Part 3i Part 3j
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Part 4
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This is part 2m of the translation of my treatise Jesuspassagerna hos Josefus – en fallstudie into English.

Den svenska texten.

II. Testimonium Flavianum

The Church Fathers’ knowledge of the Testimonium

The Syriac and Arabic translations


Maybe the most cited and controversial version of the Testimonium is found in an Arabic chronicle from the tenth century. It is a text written by the Arabic Christian historian Agapius who was bishop of the Syrian city of Hierapolis Bambyce. He is perhaps best known for his chronicle Kitâb al-‛unwân (Book of headings or Book of History) that he was working on until his death in 941 or 942 CE.[130] In this he gives a shorter version of the Testimonium, however, hardly in the form of a quotation, but more by paraphrasing it, and then of course in Arabic and thus in translation. The part therein corresponding to the Testimonium says:

Agapius’ Testimonium

”Similarly Josephus the Hebrew. For he says in the treatises that he has written on the governance of the Jews: ‘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.’” (Agapius, Kitâb al-‛unwân 2:15–16)[131]

That this is a paraphrase is shown not least by the various elements of the Testimonium occurring in different order than in the received version. Shlomo Pines (and many after him) believes that Agapius probably preserved a more original version of the Testimonium, since several of the most prominent Christian parts are missing in his version.[132] This really is Pines’ chief argument for Agapius’ version going back to an original text of Josephus that was not expanded upon with Christian additions.

Michael the Syrian

But before we even begin to analyze Agapius’ rendering of the Testimonium, also another text needs to be taken into account. This is a Syrian version of the Testimonium which Michael the Syrian, Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, 1166-1199, reproduces in his Syriac Chronicle from 1173:

Michael’s Testimonium

“The writer Josephus also says in his work on the institutions of the Jews: ’In these times there was a wise man named Jesus, if it is fitting for us to call him a man. For he was a worker of glorious deeds and a teacher of truth. Many from among the Jews and the nations became his disciples. He was thought to be the Messiah. But not according to the testimony of the principal [men] of [our] nation. Because of this, Pilate condemned him to the cross and he died. For those who had loved him did not cease to love him. He appeared to them alive after three days. For the prophets of God had spoken with regard to him of such marvellous things [as these]. And the people of the Christians, named after him, have not disappeared till [this] day.” (Michael the Syrian, Chronicle 10:20)[133]

Michael’s text is much more like the version of the Testimonium we know from other sources. Of all the representations of the Testimonium it is really only Agapius’ version that significantly deviates from the received version.[134] Yet it is clear that the two versions; the ones by Agapius and Michael, in some way are dependant upon each other, and the reason for that is, as far as one can judge, that Agapius has freely translated a Syriac version of the Testimonium very similar to the one Michael reproduces. Compared to the received version of the Testimonium in Josephus and Eusebius, Agapius’ Arabic version differs mainly on these aspects:

1)      The continuation of the introductory phrase, “if indeed one should call him a man”, is missing.

2)      The phrase “he was the Messiah” in Josephus and “he was thought to be the Messiah” in Michael is rendered by Agapius as: “he was perhaps the Messiah”.

3)      The phrase “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” is represented as if the disciples “reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion”.

Shlomo Pines and several others have argued that Agapius’ version must better reflect an original text written by Josephus, because precisely the most prominent Christian elements in the Testimonium, and therefore the parts which are most difficult to believe that Josephus has written, are missing in Agapius’ Testimonium. But let us examine the differences more in detail.

In explanation to 1) It is true that “if indeed one should call him a man”, is missing. But it is also true that this text is part of a long section that is completely rewritten and where also other parts, even those which are considered typical of Josephus, are missing. The received version in Josephus reads, “…if indeed one should call him a man, for he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure.” This whole passage has been replaced with: “And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous”.  It is accordingly not the case that only the Christian parts are missing, but also many other parts that the proponents for authenticity believe was written by Josephus; then, for example:

  • For he was a doer of startling deeds
  • because of an accusation made by the leading men among us
  • And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out

That the subordinate clause, “if indeed one should call him a man”, is missing, is more easily explained by the fact that it was part of a long section which Agapius summarized and toned down. If so, this would imply that Agapius did not have access to a text with less explicit Christian elements, but that his master for the Testimonium on the whole was the same as the received text.

In explanation to 2) The statement in Agapius that Jesus perhaps was the Messiah deviates from the normative text, which explicitly says that he was the Messiah. It is however likely that Agapius was working from a Syrian source that was also used by Michael, and that this source had the same wording as now can be found in Michael. More on this soon!

In explanation to 3) The arguments here are roughly the same as they were in paragraph 1; it is a long section which is both reduced and remodeled. The entire passage about the wondrous things that was foretold by the divine prophets is missing, and instead of “he appeared to them on the third day” is said that his disciples “reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive”. Again, also this is apparently an entirely different wording. Pines and others after him, have argued that the fact that it says that the disciples reported that he rose from the dead, expresses the author’s skepticism; and that this seemingly more neutral and less exuberant expression therefore would reflect an original Testimonium that was more neutral. The verb which Pines translates into they reported is ðakarû’. Although ðakarû’ certainly means they reported it impractically enough also means they remembered. Ken Olson points out that the verb has the same root as the noun dhikr, which means recollection, remembrance, memory, and is often used to express “remembrance of God”. And since Agapius writes that “those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship, and ðakarû’”, it is not an unreasonable interpretation that ðakarû’ should be translated into they remembered. The text would then convey the disciples remembrance, and then in a figurative sense of “bearing witness” of Jesus having showed himself alive to them. As Olson says:

“The emphasis of the sentence is on the fact that the report originates with eyewitnesses who had been Jesus’ disciples, not on the unreliability of the reporters.”[135]

Roger Viklund, 2011-03-19

[130] Roger Pearse  writes:

“Agapius alludes to the date when he was writing (p. 334 of the CSCO edition), as being the eighth month of 330 A.H. (i.e. AD 942).” (Roger Pearse, CSCO Agapius NOT the most recent edition; he refers to L. Cheikho, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1912, p. 334)

[131] The translation from Arabic into English is made by Shlomo Pines, An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications (1971), p. 8–10, 16. Agapius, Kitâb al-unwân in Patrologia Orientalis, vol. 7, 1911, p. 471­–472, book 2, 15–16.

Shlomo Pines’ translation into “governance of the Jews” is founded upon a reconstruction that he has made of the text, which in the original reads “On the evil of the Jews”. The reconstruction is based upon a quotation of Agapius’ text made by the Arabic Christian thirteenth century historian Girgis Al-Makin.

[132] Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications (Jerusalem, 1971).

[133] The translation from Syriac is made by Shlomo Pines. (Shlomo Pines, An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications, 1971, p. 26) The only preserved manuscript of Michael’s Chronicle is from the end of the 16th century.

[134] I then ignore the Slavonic version, which only initially follows the Testimonium, whereupon it transforms into something quite different.


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