The Jesus Passages in Josephus – a Case Study, part 2c – ”Testimonium Flavianum”: Content and context; subjective methods of reconstruction

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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Excursus

This is part 2c of the translation of my treatise Jesuspassagerna hos Josefus – en fallstudie into English.

Den svenska texten.

II. Testimonium Flavianum

Content and context

Subjective methods of reconstruction

A Testimonium Flavianum, curtailed of its explicit Christian elements, would then consist of the following:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was thought to be 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. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18:63–64)

For various reasons not everyone among the authenticity advocators settle for this de-Christianized text. Instead they are making different attempts and for various reasons, to expand upon the Testimonium Flavianum with new material, and maybe also rewrite it. This will be examined and analyzed carefully later on in this thesis. It is important to understand that this “laundered” text in no way differ linguistically from the explicitly Christian passages that are removed in the quotation above. If only linguistic considerations were made, all of the Testimonium Flavianum could have been written by Josephus. Every single word in the Testimonium, except for Messiah/Christ (assuming that Josephus did not use the word in the James passage) and “Christians”, is used by Josephus elsewhere. Most expressions are also in keeping with Josephus’ linguistic usage, although there are a few expressions that could be doubted; whether Josephus really could have written those. However, these expressions occur with a similar incidence in the sentences that are considered authentic, as well as in the rest. This means that it is not possible to discard some parts of the Testimonium on purely linguistic basis as something which could not have been written by Josephus. All reconstructions of the Testimonium are therefore made on the basis of its content and not on the basis of the language (which is often said). Regarding the language of the Testimonium Flavianum, I have written an article in Swedish dealing separately with that issue: Myten om språket i Josefus’ Testimonium Flavianum. I have no immediate plans of translating also that article into English. But I will make a brief summary here and now.

Would Josephus then have written a more de-Christianized Testimonium according to the pattern suggested? The curtailed text contains a number of expressions that are typical of Josephus, like for instance “at this time” and “wise man”; expressions which Josephus often uses. In scientific research, however, there is an important principle which should be considered: If Christians, as far this can be proven at all, have forged at least parts of the Testimonium Flavianum, the principle of precaution must be employed. Where there are forgeries, the fundamental rule must be to suspect that everything is forged.

Christian apologists rather often argue that those who doubt the authenticity also have to prove that everything is faked. But it is almost impossible to prove that every word in a forged text also is forged. That argument is really astounding, because Christians in the past have forged Josephus, and then Christians in modern times demand that the critics shall prove that everything is forged. In this case, the burden of proof must first and foremost lie on those people who claim that Josephus has written anything at all of the Testimonium Flavianum. It is not good enough to settle for just removing everything that is explicitly Christian.

A subjective method. The method of removing everything which seems alien to Josephus’ conceptions, and thus think that by this you have re-created a text that lies close to the genuine text, is essentially subjective, unscientific, deceptive and therefore reprehensible. This is not a valid method, since by using it you can create a “genuine” text from whatever faked text you like.

If you confine yourself to the method of eliminating everything which on the surface appears to be spurious, you could easily create seemingly authentic texts from texts forged throughout. You can simply remove and remove until you have eliminated everything that can be criticized, and at once you have created what you originally sought. Such an approach cannot be called serious.

Even if you employ this unscientific method and excise the typical Christian conception, you will nevertheless preserve a text in which Josephus is supposed to have portrayed Jesus in a diametrically opposite way compared to what could be expected from him if he really would have written anything about Jesus. The defenders of authenticity, who claim that Josephus may not have been hostile towards Jesus, should therefore refer to such facts that support their hypothesis. To simply say that Josephus “might have had” a sympathetic attitude to Jesus is not a valid argument. Such a claim must be substantiated by examples from Josephus’ own writings. In this respect, the only example of this, namely the Testimonium (and possibly the passage about James), cannot be referred to as an argument, since these passages are under investigation. Besides, Josephus’ condemning of divinely inspired prophets as madmen, indeed speaks directly against such an interpretation.

Let us consider the expressions which are left after the explicitly Christian passages are eliminated. What remains are expressions such as Jesus being a wise man, even though Josephus looked upon Messiah aspirants with contempt and normally uses the word “wise” of characters he revered, such as Solomon and Daniel.[25] It would also mean that Josephus would unconditionally have thought that Jesus did startling deeds, which would be to ascribe to Jesus the abilities Jews very early on believed that Jesus acquired as a sorcerer; that Josephus, who was raised in Palestine, would think that a Jewish person in Palestine (where hardly any Greeks lived) taught the Greeks, and also that he would lay the blame for the execution of Jesus on his own people – all this is something that the Jewish historian reasonably could not have done. On the contrary, he aims to portray the Jews in the most favourable light. It would also mean that Josephus would look at Jesus with benevolence, and claim that his supporters loved him and continued to do so. Consider a description of Jesus where he is portrayed as a wise and beloved man who performs startling deeds and attracts many Jews and Greeks; where he is accused by the leading men among the Jews and crucified by Pilate. It is indeed a portrayal which could rather have been taken directly from the Gospels. And yet this is the remaining text when all the explicit Christian elements are removed.

Some apparently even more desperate attempts to link the Testimonium to Josephus exists, but these will not be dealt with to any greater extent in this study, since these kind of theory buildings seem to me to rest on rather shaky ground. This applies to the attempts to reinterpret the language of the Testimonium in order to give the text a totally different meaning. One approach is to transform expressions such as “paradoxôn ergôn”, that is “startling works” or “wonderful works”, in such a way that they no longer seem startling or wonderful, but instead in a figurative sense means something like “unusual works”; or to suppose that the expression “received the truth with pleasure” (ΤΑΛΗΘΗ, talêthê = true) has been corrupted and originally read “received the unusual/abnormal with pleasure” (ΤΑ ΑΗΘΗ, ta aêthê = the unusual). By slightly changing the meaning of some key elements in the Testimonium, it will appear as if Josephus was more neutral in his description of Jesus. The second approach is based on the idea that Josephus was in fact ironic when he wrote the Testimonium and thus really meant the opposite of what he wrote. In a somewhat incisive wording, he would thus have written “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man … ha ha!”[26]

These kinds of methods are all about creating what you originally are looking for and what you want to be the truth; that is, to find ways to interpret the text of the Testimonium in order to defend the opinion that Josephus has written the paragraph. There is no real support for these interpretations in the form of preserved material. Of course one cannot dispute the possibility of such interpretations, that is, the proposed hypotheses are not falsifiable. If you for example suggests that an A in “ΤΑ ΑΗΘΗ” has been altered into a Λ and the word thus has become ΤΑΛΗΘΗ, this alteration was probably not made by accident but by a deliberate action. And if you without any support for your hypothesis propose such a change in the text, you might as well suggest that Josephus has written just about anything, because everything can be changed into something else, if that is a forger’s intention.

The excision of the unambiguous Christian sentences is thus, in contrast to what is often claimed, almost solely done from the point of view of content and not from the point of view of language.[27] In so far Alice Whealey is more honest, while she claims that everything is written by Josephus, since based on only linguistic considerations, he actually – at least theoretically – could have written it all. There are however a few expressions that Josephus normally did not use.[28] One can therefore observe that also the undisguised Christian sentences, which reasonably are written by someone else than Josephus, all the same are quite in the spirit of Josephus. Consequently the forger should have been familiar with Josephus’ style of writing and also tried to endeavour to write in his spirit. Based on this observation, it is reasonable to assume that the forger in the same way would have been able to compose also the remainder of the Testimonium. This is how Charles Guignebert puts it:

“It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter, but the short digression, even with the proposed corrections, interrupts the thread of the discourse into which it is introduced.” (Charles Guignebert, Jesus, 1956, p. 17)

This is of course not an argument in support of the entire Testimonium being a forgery, but it is an argument against the inaccurate allegation that some parts of the Testimonium, can be removed for linguistic reasons and that the remaining text for linguistic reasons better would reflect Josephus’ style. This is simply not true. It is also an argument against the notion that a Christian would have portrayed Jesus even more exalted, for example, not merely have called him a wise man, but instead the son of God. This would on the other hand not be far from declaring the forger an idiot. The forger surely must have expressed himself in a manner typical of Josephus, in order to make the forgery credible. And anyone who objects to this by saying that the Testimonium is too pro-Christian in order for this mission to succeed, should realize that it was not until the 16th century that someone openly challenged the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum.[29] One cannot expect that a contemporary forger would predict the modern rise of textual criticism. The most important thing for a counterfeiter would be to deceive his contemporaries, which he (or she) apparently appears to have succeeded in doing.

Roger Viklund, 2011-03-03


[25] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 8:53, 10:237.

[26] James Carleton Paget, Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity, Journal of Theological Studies 52:2 (2001) p. 587–588. Thomas Walter Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles, Manchester 1962, p. 19. Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ: 175 B.C.–A.D. 135, Volume I, 1973, p. 436.

[28] Josephus never uses the word ποιητής (poiêtês) in the sense of someone ”performing” something, a ”creator”,  wherefore the expression ”παραδόξων ἔργων ποιητής” (paradoxôn ergôn poiêtês), that is a ”doer of startling deed”, is not typical of him. He also never uses the word Christos (χριστὸς). Further on there is the expression ”εἰς ἔτι τε νῦν” (eis eti te nun), that is ”up until this very day”, which is not found anywhere else in Josephus’ writings except for the Testimonium.

[29] It is usually said that the first person to openly question whether Josephus had written the Testimonium, was Hubert van Giffen (1534–1616). That Giffen really openly took this position has, however, been doubted. We know Giffen’s views on the matter from a letter by Sebastian Lepusculus from 1559. This letter has in turn been preserved in a print by Melchior Gold from 1619.

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