The Jesus Passages in Josephus – a Case Study, part 2h – ”Testimonium Flavianum”: The Church Fathers’ knowledge; Origen’s testification of the absence of the Testimonium

Part 1
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Part 3a Part 3b Part 3c Part 3d
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Part 4
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Excursus

This is part 2h 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

Origen’s testification of the absence of the Testimonium

Not even Origen (c. 185–254 CE) seems to know about the Testimonium Flavianum. About the year 248 CE, Origen wrote a lengthy refutation of Celsus, an opponent of Christianity.[62] Origen tries primarily to show that Jesus was the Messiah. Origen knew all of Josephus’ (four known) works.[63] In Against Celsus he writes that “in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews [where the Testimonium now occurs], Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist”.[64] Origen does however not mention the Testimonium Flavianum. On the contrary, he says that Josephus was “not believing in Jesus as the Christ [Messiah]”, even though Josephus is supposed to have written the opposite in the Testimonium, namely that Jesus was the Messiah.[65]

Origen writes that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and this is sometimes cited as proof that Origen referred to the Testimonium, but that the statement that Jesus was the Messiah either was completely missing from the version of the Testimonium Origen found in Josephus, or that there instead was something like “he was thought to be the Messiah”, or perhaps the “he was not the Messiah”. This is a both remarkable and far-fetched assumption. If Origen had really known that Josephus had written the Testimonium, in its entirety or partially, he also reasonably must have known that Jesus in that passage either was considered, or without any restrictions proclaimed, the Messiah – because by a number of assertions this is the essential message of the Testimonium. Beside the explicit designation of Jesus as the Messiah, it is also said that he was superior to man and that his life was predicted by the holy prophets.

When Origen says that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, it should of course indicate that Origen never heard of the Testimonium. Instead some argue that he knew of a Testimonium that contained a sentence which explicitly said that Jesus was not the Messiah/Christ (“Jesus was not the Messiah!”), or one which said that he was considered to be or called the Messiah/Christ. The negative acknowledgment through Origen’ silence would thus be converted and reinterpreted into a kind of positive denial of only the normative version, yet still confirm that the Testimonium existed in another wording.

In fact, Origen is just witnessing one single Jesus passage by Josephus; a passage which since then has disappeared and is nowhere to be found in any of the surviving texts of Josephus. According to this now missing passage, Josephus would have written that Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed as a result of what the Jews “had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ [Messiah].” (Origen, On Matthew 10:17)

Why at all suggest that Origen would have had access to a version of the Testimonium Flavianum where Josephus had written that Jesus was thought to be the Messiah, when Origen already has shown himself to know of a passage in Josephus which says that Jesus was called the Messiah?

Both terms, “was thought to be” and “was called”, expresses reservation, and can be interpreted as if the author does not agree with the things he says. Why then suppose the existence of a version of the Testimonium (with “he was thought to be the Messiah”) which is not preserved in the writings of Josephus, and that Origen himself did not witness, when he at the same time actually is witnessing another expression in the same Josephus, which in this context is equivalent (“who is called Christ/Messiah”)?

In case Origen would have had access to the Testimonium, if only with a statement that Jesus was thought to be the Messiah, also this would have perfectly well served his purposes by affirming that the people back then actually believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Moreover, Origen would in such case hardly have failed to point out that Josephus said that Jesus rose from the dead and “did startling deeds” and also that the prophets of the Old Testament foretold “ten thousand other wonderful things about him” – an implicit acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah. Because of this Origen reasonably alludes to something else.

According to Origen, Josephus had written that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple was a punishment upon the Jews for having killed James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, called Christ. Just the fact that Jesus here was “called Christ” and accordingly not “was Christ,” may have been sufficient for Origen to think that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Origen says that Josephus instead should have said that all this had befallen the Jews because they put Jesus Christ to death.[66] Also the fact that Josephus in the only passage on Jesus that Origen refers to, pays more attention to the death of James (or Jacob) than to the death of Jesus, might have been enough for Origen to conclude that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The fact that Josephus also never (besides what is said in the Testimonium) expresses Christian notions, ought to have made such an expert on Josephus as Origen realize that Josephus did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. This will be dealt with in greater detail later on.

To sum up; no Father of the Church or anyone else during the second and third centuries, quotes or refers to the Testimonium in any way, although many were familiar with Josephus. A passage like the Testimonium would also reasonably not have been unknown to the Christians, even if they otherwise had not read Josephus, as such a text would have attracted attention, and they would also have discuss the matter among themselves. Not even Origen, who in his book Against Celsus directly refers to book 18 of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (where the Testimonium now is found,) mentions or refers to the Testimonium, but settles for referring to what Josephus writes about John the Baptist in that book.


[62] The philosopher and opponent of Christianity, Celsus (Greek: Κέλσος), wrote in c. 178 CE a work in which he attacked the Christian doctrine. This work, which went by the name of The True Word (Greek: Λόγος Ἀληθής), is now lost, but through the extensive quotations made by Origen in his work Against Celsus from about 248 CE, about 3/4 of Celsus’ work has been literally re-created and is about 9/10 of its contents preserved.

[63] Origen, Against Celsus, 1:16

“Δυνατὸν γὰρ τὸν βουλόμενον ἀναγνῶναι τὰ γεγραμμένα Φλαυίῳ Ἰωσήπῳ περὶ τῆς τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἀρχαιότητος ἐν δυσίν, ὅπου πολλὴν συναγωγὴν συγγραφέων φέρει μαρτυρούντων τῇ Ἰουδαίων ἀρχαιότητι.”

“For it is possible for the one who wishes [to do so] to read the writings of Flavius Josephus concerning the ancientness of the Jews, in two [books], where he produces a great collection of historians who testify to the ancientness of the Jews.”

Origen, Against Celsus, 4:11:

“Καὶ ὁ βουλόμενός γε ἀναγνώτω τὰ Φλαυΐου Ἰωσήπου περὶ τῆς Ἰουδαίων ἀρχαιότητος δύο βιβλία, ἵνα γνῷ τίνα τρόπον ἀρχαιότερος ἦν Μωϋσῆς τῶν κατὰ χρόνων μακρὰς περιόδους κατακλυσμοὺς καὶ ἐκπυρώσεις φησάντων γίνεσθαι ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ”

“And let the one who wishes [to do so] read the two books of Flavius Josephus concerning the ancientness of the Jews, in order that he might know in what way Moses was more ancient than those who say that over long periods of time cataclysms and conflagrations happen in the world.”

(From Ben C. Smith, Text Excavation, Origen on Josephus)

[64] Origen writes:

”For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless–being, although against his will, not far from the truth–that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),–the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.” (Origen, Against Celsus 1:47)

[65] Origen, On Matthew, 10:17, Against Celsus 1:47.

[66] Origen, Against Celsus, 1:47.

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