The Jesus passages in Josephus – IV. Conclusions

As I intend to translate my Swedish treatise Jesuspassagerna hos Josefus – en fallstudie into English, I thought that I might begin by publishing the summary in this blog. This is the same summary that I previously published in Swedish in a blog post from July 24, 2010, named Jesuspassagerna hos Josefus. The treatise is more like a book, since it would run to approximately 200 book pages, footnotes included, if it was to be published as such. And I still believe that Josephus did not write a single word about Jesus.

IV. Conclusions

The fact that the Jewish historian Josephus’ works have survived, may probably be attributed to the fact that Josephus depicted the period and the historical events which were of interest for the Christians. Not only did Josephus give a picture of the Jewish society during the time period when Jesus is supposed to have lived, but in his Antiquities of the Jews, Jesus was also directly mentioned – a non-Christian testimony of the first rank, as it was delivered by a Jew and consequently by a person belonging to a people and a religious faith that both competed with and dissociated itself from the Christian doctrine. The more detailed testimony, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (TF), and the brief mention of Jesus in the James-passage in connection with the establishment of the identity of James, are not seen as equally credible. While the latter is generally assumed to have originated with Josephus, almost all scholars believe that at least some part of the TF has been transformed in a more Christian fashion, and some scholars that it in its entirety is a Christian creation.

The differences in approach between those who believe that Josephus wrote something about Jesus and those who believe that he wrote nothing, is maybe for the most based on whether they believe in the Gospel story or not. Perhaps many, like Robert Eisler, consider it to be too implausible that Jesus either did not exist at all or was a marginalized and relatively insignificant person, and therefore they cannot imagine that Josephus never mentioned Jesus. For how could Josephus have avoided mentioning Jesus if just a bit of all what is said about him in the Gospels were true?

Otherwise, it is hard to imagine why scholars so often take their starting point in the scant mention of Jesus in the James-passage, and on the basis of not finding anything explicit Christian therein, they affirm that Josephus not only wrote that part, but as a consequence also TF, although not necessarily all of it. The reasonable starting point should instead be TF and the realization that Christians indeed have added information about Jesus; and from that observation realize that this is a mine field, where any statement about Jesus in Josephus has to be seen as a potential forgery. The mere fact that we “know” that Christians have falsified Josephus, should urge us to use the greatest caution. The correct method of analysis cannot lead to the assumption that everything is genuine until proven otherwise. That method lost its validity the moment it became evident that the text is manipulated and that additions have been made – not just once but most likely several times. In addition, it is impossible to show that everything is forged. Instead, the precautionary principle must apply, and the starting point should be that everything potentially is falsified. Thus, the opposite occurs and in order to consider that Josephus wrote anything at all about Jesus, it is thereby required to make this a credible option.

Testimonium Flavianum has undoubtedly been an integral part of Christianity’s description of its Saviour’s achievements on earth. This resulted in the passage being included, at least in some form, in the national chronicles which Christians over the centuries wrote in their own languages, whether in Latin, Syrian, Arabic, Armenian, or Old Russian. All versions of TF in all extant manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews have the same wording. All versions of all extant manuscripts of TF in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History also give the same text. But these two identical Greek “original versions” have been preserved only in late manuscripts – from the tenth century onwards – and could therefore have been “corrected”, as only one or a few authorized manuscripts were reproduced. Apart from the obviously fanciful embellishments found in the Slavonic Josephus, TF is preserved only in three from the normative text (in Josephus and Eusebius) divergent variants, a Latin written by Jerome in 392 CE, an Arabic written by Agapius in 942 CE and a Syrian written by Michael the Syrian in 1173 CE. Agapius’ text is the one most frequently put forward as a more dechristianized version, and one which therefore better would reflect what Josephus wrote. That is however hardly the case, as both Agapius’ own statements and the similarities that exist between him and Michael’s editions show that Agapius was relying on a Syrian source and himself modified TF into a more subdued text. The resemblance to Michael suggests that it is Michael who has better preserved the wording in his and Agapius’ common source. Thus, it is reasonably only their source (which is best reflected in Michael’s text) which provide a deviating variant text. Since this source has “he was considered to be the Messiah” (in Syrian) and Jerome has, “he was believed to be the Messiah” (in Latin), it has been suggested that something similar would have been in the Greek text of Josephus.

However, both Jerome and the Syrian source are based on Eusebius (who is the first to witness the TF, in the early fourth century) and not on Josephus. Both have also dared to make other changes to the text independent of each other, so it is not at all impossible that they also separately changed “he was”” into “he was thought/was believed to be”. Maybe they like the views offered today considered it absurd that Josephus (who obviously was not a Christian) could have appointed Jesus to be the Christ? Maybe they just clarified that it was his disciples who believed that he was the Christ? The claim that Jerome’s text is of higher credibility than Josephus’ and Eusebius’ since it is preserved in a manuscript from c. 600 CE, is undermined by the even more ancient Syrian manuscripts containing translations of two of Eusebius’ books: one manuscript from the year 462; the other from the year 411 CE. Both having “he was Christ”. On top of that the Armenian translation reading “he was” is reflecting the Syrian text of the Ecclesiastical History as it was in the fourth century. And it seems unreasonable to think that almost all the manuscripts of Eusebius’ three works, all quotes and all translations from it could have been amended retrospectively to reflect the normative version – especially since the three versions are not exactly alike, but differ slightly in detail. It is then much easier to imagine, that the deviations in Jerome and in the unknown Syrian chronicler, are deviations which they accomplished themselves.

In any case, there is no testifying of TF before Eusebius. This also holds true for the Latin paraphrase of the TF which is to be found in Pseudo-Hegesippus. Although it is possible, there is no proof that the author had access to a manuscript of the Antiquities of the Jews with a version of TF with a different wording, or even a text that precedes Eusebius. In other words, Eusebius is the first person to witness the normative version of the TF in the early fourth century. No evidence for a TF with different wording exists, nor for any previous occurrence of the TF.

It is therefore legitimate to ask whether Josephus could have written TF at all? The presence of Christian beliefs in TF militates against the suggestion that TF in part, or in its entirety, could have been written by Josephus. TF contains a sample of Christian values and we have no evidence at all that Josephus was a Christian. The same holds true for the direct appointment of Jesus as the Messiah. It is preposterous to think that Josephus, even with a softened “he was thought to be”, would have written such a thing without a detailed explanation of what the messiah-term meant. Jesus is also depicted in TF in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the image Josephus gives of other Messiah aspirants. Furthermore, not a single church father mention the TF before Eusebius in the fourth century reproduces the passage, although quite a few were familiar with Josephus, and their writings often were about defending the Christian faith. And it is not enough to postulate a possibly softened TF as a credible alternative, because even such a Testimonium would have been cited by at least some Church Fathers. Origen’s silence is perhaps the most striking, because he was familiar with precisely the 18th book of the Antiquities of the Jews in which TF now occurs and because he opposed the view of a Jew. Moreover, the silence of later Patriarchs like John Chrysostom and Photius are very strange, since they actually indirectly do witness that TF was not in their manuscripts. Each of these points could be explained away as unfortunate circumstances, but put together they give a strong indication of TF not being written by Josephus. A version in which all the Christian elements are removed would barely explain the above facts, at least each separately. But apart from the fact that the method of removing everything you do not wish to be included in the TF is fundamentally unscientific, this does not solve the main problem, namely that the TF does not fit into the context of the Antiquities of the Jews. The opening words immediately after the TF give the impression that Josephus has just completed the description of a sad calamity which put the Jews in disorder. The paragraph before TF is depicting precisely such an event, and not even a version of the TF with all Christian elements removed would solve this dilemma. In such case, a version of the TF with a completely different content would be needed; a version where more of a national trauma is accounted for. At the same time, such a version of TF has absolutely no support when it comes to preserved text material, and thus to postulate such a version is to look far beyond the limits of science.

Based on the fact that Josephus probably did not write a word about Jesus in the Christian text known as the Testimonium Flavianum, the mention of “the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James” appears in a totally different light. Without the TF, and hence an earlier explanation of whom Jesus was, the identification of a (for the reader) otherwise unknown James, brother of a possibly equally unknown Jesus Christ, would be an odd exception from Josephus’ normal way of identifying those people he depicts. This was of course no problem for a Christian, as Jesus Christ would be an evident character to him; nor was there a problem if the addition was made later in time when Jesus Christ had become a well-known concept even among non-Christians.

That the reference to the Jesus of the Bible in the context of the death of a certain James is a later addition, is supported by the fact that Origen apparently knew about a similar sentence in a different context in the writings of Josephus. That text was probably just an addition and something that Josephus never had written, because it simply did not make it into the preserved text (which it otherwise ought to have done). Origen, however, shows no knowledge of the James-passage which now is to be found in the Antiquities of the Jews 20:200. The first person to mention this passage is again Eusebius in the early fourth century. We do not know if that paragraph was in the manuscript of the Antiquities of the Jews which Eusebius had access to, but it probably was. Since apparently someone had made an addition with the identical wording “brother of Jesus called Christ” to the manuscript which Origen read, these additions should precede Origen and accordingly also Eusebius. Obviously there were several additions made to Josephus’ texts at different places, and maybe also in different books. This was done quite early. Perhaps Eusebius created the TF as a whole; perhaps he only “improved” an earlier Christian creation, or this Christian creation existed already before Eusebius’ time. In which case, it is quite possible that the addition of “Jesus Christ” to the James-passage preceded not only Eusebius (early 4th century), but also Origen (mid 3rd century). It could have been made already in the second century and have consisted of only a note which someone made in the margin. This note was then by some copyist perceived as if it belonged to, or for religious clarity ought to belong to, the text and therefore got included. Since Josephus wrote about someone named James who was killed by stoning, and as the time was approximately right, some Christian person erroneously assumed that it must refer to “James, the brother of the Lord”. However, it apparently did not concern contemporary Christians too much that the time was off by five years; that the fall from the top of the temple and the killing blow with the club was not mentioned; and that this James was killed after a verdict from the Sanhedrin.

Roger Viklund, 2010-09-09



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