Do gods exist? 40 Jesus by Josephus

Image adapted from reconstruction of face of Jesus by Richard Neave

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, in his Jewish Antiquities of 93 ad, was the first independent historian to refer to the existence of Jesus.

Josephus was a thirty-year-old Jewish rebel during the revolt of 66 ad who miraculously survived a suicide pact among his troops, then switched sides and became a Roman citizen.

In 93 ad he published the Jewish Antiquities, a twenty-book history of the Jews. This allegedly contained this reference to Jesus:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”

Aside from not being contemporaneous, this reference is weighted down with alarm bells.

  • Josephus was a Jew, writing a Jewish history. He would never have called Jesus ‘the Christ’.
  • This remarkable claim, which would have been great propaganda for early church leaders, seems to have gone unnoticed for nearly a quarter of a millennium.
  • As late as 230 ad, Origen, one of the fathers of the church, was unaware of the claim; indeed he denied that Josephus believed Jesus was the Christ.
  • It was 324 ad before Bishop Eusebius became the first person to quote this passage. Incidentally, this is the same Bishop who took another passage from Josephus, in which an owl appeared over King Herod’s head, and rewrote the owl as an angel.
  • Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia admits that ‘the passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations.’ Top marks to whoever decided to use the word ‘interpolation’ as a euphemism for forgery.

Some skeptics believe that Christians ‘interpolated’ all of this passage, as it seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative before and after it.

Another theory is that Josephus may have mentioned Jesus by quoting, more rationally, some extracts from an earlier document, and Christians later ‘interpolated’ all of the propaganda about Jesus being divine.

On balance, I believe that something like this probably happened. This would be consistent with a later, shorter reference in the same book to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ’, although even here it is unusual to see a person named by reference to his brother rather than his father.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia concludes simply of the controversies that:

“The difficulty has not been definitively settled.”

That is hardly a ringing endorsement of what is supposed to be the first independent historical record of Jesus.

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