THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 16: Josephus On the Rocks

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.



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Supplementary Article No. 16

JOSEPHUS ON THE ROCKS

[The present article is a revision and considerable expansion of the Josephus chapter in my book, The Jesus Puzzle, as well as of Supplementary Article No. 10, "Josephus Revisited" on this website. Most of it will form part of the book's Second Edition, due for publication before the end of 2008. The following list of links to sections of the text will indicate the topics covered, including a detailed examination of the now notorious 'description' of Jesus created by Robert Eisler which has enjoyed a lot of Internet exposure. Fortunately, I was able at the last minute to incorporate comment on the recent "The Jesus Legend" by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, whose chapter 4 on the question of Ancient Non-Christian Sources addresses some of my arguments and is entitled "A Conspiracy of Silence?": an acknowledged play on my own phrase (without the question mark) used in both book and website as an ironic comment on the void on the historical Jesus found in the early Christian non-Gospel record.
     Unlike the book, the footnotes are here placed in situ, after the paragraphs in which they appear. As is my usual practice, citations are placed within the text itself.]

The Testimonium Flavianum: The Arguments
Witness to the Testimonium Flavianum
Positive or Negative?
Chrysostom and Photius
The Term "Messiah" / Jerome and Pseudo-Hegesippus
Josephus and the "Messiah"
The Table of Contents
The Silence of Jewish War
The Language of the Testimonium and the Role of Eusebius
Was Eusebius "Telling Lies"?
Could Josephus have written the "authentic" Testimonium?
The Arabic Version
The Slavonic Josephus
Excursus: A Physical Portrait of Jesus (Robert Eisler)
The Galilean vs. the Jerusalem Jesus
The Brother of Jesus, (the one) called Christ
Jesus Who?
James Who?
Witness to the Antiquities 20 Reference
A Curiosity in Jerome
James and the Fall of Jerusalem
Messiah Who?
A Christian Phrase
The "Lost Reference" to James and Jerusalem

I: The Testimonium Flavianum

In any survey of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus occupies center stage. In fact, analyzing the two passages in the surviving manuscripts of Josephus which contain a reference to Jesus has become a major industry in the debate over his existence.

A young Joseph ben Matthias (he was born in 37 CE) fought in the Jewish War of 66-70 as commander in Galilee, but was forced to surrender to the Roman general Vespasian. Recognizing the inevitability of Rome’s rule, he threw in his lot with the enemy. He predicted—correctly—that Vespasian would become emperor, and even pronounced him to be the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies about a coming ruler and savior. He spent the balance of his life in Rome as a client of the Flavian (Vespasian’s) family. There, under the name Flavius Josephus, he wrote his two great histories, the Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews. Although he was mistrusted and even regarded as a turncoat by his fellow Jews, he attempted in his writings to serve as an apologist for the Jewish people to a Roman and Greek audience. He died some time after 100 CE.

Josephus’s first work was an account of the War, that paramount catastrophe of Jewish history in which Judea was laid waste, much of Jerusalem was leveled, and the Temple and its sacrificial cult were destroyed, never to be revived. The Jewish War was first written in Aramaic for use in the east, designed to discourage further revolt against Rome. That initial version has been lost. It was followed not long afterward by an account in Greek of the same events, this time for a Greco-Roman readership. Josephus then spent much of the remainder of his life writing his nation’s history, a free paraphrase of the Hebrew bible’s historical books, with additions from other sources. The Antiquities of the Jews was published in the year 93-94.

For modern historians, the works of Josephus have been the single most valuable source of information on first century Palestine, yet it is quite probable that we owe their survival through the Middle Ages to the Christian copyist or copyists who inserted those two passages about Jesus in the Antiquities (Books 18 and 20) some time between the second and fourth centuries. That ‘witness’—the first and longest passage is known as the “Testimonium Flavianumwas treasured by Christians as fully authentic for over a millennium, with the result that Josephus enjoyed a privileged position in the priorities of medieval preservers of ancient non-Christian manuscripts.

Are those two passages in fact forgeries? Despite the efforts of modern commentators to protect them from dissolution under the light of examination, a good case can be made for saying that Josephus wrote nothing about Jesus and was probably unaware of any such figure. As in all matters of historical research, it may be very difficult to “prove” that Josephus made no reference to Jesus. But if the claim that he did so can be sufficiently undermined, or if one can demonstrate that both passages are unreliable and unlikely to be his product, then at the very least they are removed from contention and cannot be used to discredit the argument, based on evidence within the Christian record itself, that there was no historical Jesus.

The “Testimonium Flavianum”: The Arguments

In Book 18, Chapter 3, Paragraph 3 of the Antiquities of the Jews (notated as XVIII, 3, 3, or 18.63 in the newer numbering system), one small paragraph follows an account of a couple of misfortunes visited upon the Judean Jews by Pontius Pilate; it is followed by reports of certain scandals of the time in Rome, one of them involving Jews. In its present form, the paragraph reads:

“Now about this time there lived Jesus a wise man, if one ought 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 won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing [lit., the principal men] among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place had come to love him did not forsake him. For he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the holy prophets had predicted these and many other wonderful things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, continues to the present day.”

It has been obvious to modern commentators for some time that Josephus could not have written the passages in bold type, since this would mean he subscribed to Christian doctrine. The line about the ‘teacher of truth’ is also suspect. But what about the remainder? Could Josephus have written this ‘distilled’ Testimonium?

In approaching this question, it is important to realize the nature of the argument for such an ‘authentic original.’ Essentially, it consists of eliminating those portions of the paragraph which could clearly or in all likelihood not be the product of Josephus, then declaring the rest to be a feasible original. The evidence to support that feasible original is, however, almost entirely lacking, or at best indicated by weak or ambiguous arguments. During the first half of the 20th century, the predominant scholarly opinion was that the two passages in Josephus were probably entirely spurious.1 In recent decades, however, the almost universal tendency among scholars is to attempt an extraction of a residual passage authentic to Josephus. This has proven to be something of a ‘bandwagon’ process in which certain basic arguments are regularly recycled, with little or no progress achieved in making them more effective, let alone rendering them conclusive.

1 For example, Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18: “It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere; that the Christians—and perhaps the Jews also, for a different reason—were very early surprised and pained by this silence, and did their best to rectify it by various glosses, at various times and in various places, of the different manuscripts of the Jewish chronicler.” Maurice Goguel (who is, ironically, frequently cited as one of those scholars who have thoroughly addressed Jesus mythicism and proven it untenable—despite the fact that his effort dates from the 1920s) allows that both passages on Jesus in Josephus can be “suspected of interpolation” [Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, p.35]. I say ‘ironically’ because so much apologetic defense of Jesus’ existence relies on the conviction that Josephus said something about Jesus, and yet one of the major alleged refuters of mythicism commonly appealed to does himself reject the likelihood that Josephus said anything. [See my website article “Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism” for a thorough rebuttal to a century of reputed refutations of Jesus mythicism:

The Argument to Language

One of those arguments is the claim that such an “original passage” contains phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. But if a Christian copyist were seeking to create a convincing interpolation, he would likely try to employ Josephan fingerprints to make it appear authentic; and if he were introducing terms or ideas similar to those expressed elsewhere in Josephus he would have precedents to draw on. If he were someone who worked with the manuscripts of Josephus on a regular basis, such imitation might well become second nature to him. Guignebert (see Note 1) opined (op.cit., p.17): “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter…”

The language found in the Testimonium, whether allegedly Josephan or decidedly Christian, will be examined in detail later in this chapter. One example will illustrate our point here. The phrase “wise man” is used to describe Jesus. But “wise” is consistently applied by Josephus to figures—mostly Jewish, such as Solomon and Daniel (e.g., Ant. VIII, 2, 7 / 53; X, 11, 2 / 237)—whom he is praising and whom he holds in high regard, and it is questionable, as we shall see, that Josephus could have so regarded Jesus. We shall also see that a good case can be made for a comparative identification of many Testimonium terms with Eusebius, the 4th century Christian historian who is the first to quote the Testimonium, leading to the strong possibility that Eusebius was the forger of the passage in its entirety.

For now, we can say that the unusual application of certain terms in the Testimonium when considering their usual use elsewhere by Josephus is an argument against their authenticity. It speaks to an interpolator drawing on Josephan vocabulary, but failing to take into account that the use he makes of them would be rather un-Josephan.

The Argument to Progression

 G. A. Wells and others have argued that the continuity of the flanking passages works best when no passage about Jesus intervenes. The final thought of the previous paragraph (#2), which deals with Pilate’s use of Temple funds for new aqueducts to bring water to the city and the resulting riots in which many Jewish protestors were slain, flows naturally into the opening words of the one following the Testimonium (#4): “About the same time another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.” The latter is a remark which does not fit as a follow-up to the closing sentence of the Jesus passage (#3) or to its subject matter; the event of Jesus’ crucifixion is not portrayed in any way as a ‘calamity’ for the Jews. Now, it is sometimes suggested that the original passage in Josephus may have been quite different, perhaps including material that was not only hostile to Jesus and his followers, but portrayed the event as somehow redounding negatively on the Jews themselves, which would allow it to fit into the “sad calamity” category. This type of suggestion—and it is all too frequent in these discussions—is entirely speculative, and enjoys no support in the evidence. For example, all other versions of the Testimonium, including the Arabic and Slavonic texts we will look at, tend to be variants on the same themes that we see in the standard version, with no hostile or calamitous language in evidence.

The argument about progression is somewhat tempered by the fact that since the ancients made no use of footnotes, digressional material had to be inserted into the main text, as there was nowhere else to put it. However, one might ask whether the Testimonium should be considered digressional material, since if authentic it would continue with the theme of Pilate’s activities. Whether it is—or was originally—also in keeping with the theme of woes which befall the Jews is questionable. One might also suggest that, digression or no, once Josephus had written it, his opening words in the subsequent paragraph ought to have reflected, rather than ignored, the paragraph on Jesus.

Furthermore, if Josephus was treating it as a digression, the observation made by Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, p.42-3) is germane. Josephus does indeed introduce a digression into the next paragraph, one describing “the seduction of the virtuous matron Paulina in the Temple of Isis by Decius Mundus, who pretended to be the god Anubis,” thus delaying his actual account of the “another sad calamity” which befell the Jews. (The seduction anecdote has nothing to do with Pilate or the Jews but is simply something that took place “about the same time.”) But here, as Zindler points out, Josephus is very clear that this is a digression, for he introduces the account with: “I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt about the temple of Isis, and will then give an account of the Jewish affairs.” At its conclusion he alerts the reader: “I now return to the relation of what happened about this time to the Jews of Rome, as I formerly told you I would.” As Zindler says, “No such notice is given to explain his alleged digression into Jesus appearing alive on the third day.”

Steve Mason points out (Josephus and the New Testament, p.226-7) that the episodes in all the other paragraphs surrounding “are described as ‘outrages’ or ‘uprisings’ or ‘tumults’.” No such characterization is made of the Testimonium. “[Josephus] is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit….So, unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson.” Again, we are not entitled to posit some different original which contained such features in the absence of any supporting evidence for it.

The Argument to Length

Another standard argument in favor of a Josephan original is that if a Christian had constructed this passage in its entirety, he would not have limited himself to something so short to describe the career of his Savior. This argument can be set aside, for it would have to be applied to the scribe who supposedly added the extra elements to the presumed original. Why did he not make his insertions longer? We cannot know the answer to either alternative.

In fact, the shortness of the passage could be seen as a strike against authenticity. If the ‘authentic’ Testimonium is supposed to represent more or less what Josephus wrote, why is it so lacking in detail when compared to that which he gives to his surrounding anecdotes? Such an original passage would pale in comparison to the rich accounts of the crisis over Pilate’s attempted introduction into the city of the effigies on the army standards, or the riots over his use of Temple funds to finance the new aqueducts. The related incidents succeeding the Testimonium are also very detailed—two scandals happening “about the same time,” the second (paragraph #5) resulting in a true calamity for the Jews in that they were expelled by Tiberius from the city of Rome. The first incident in the following chapter, about a ‘tumult’ which befell the Samaritans at Pilates’ hand, is also quite detailed. The argument that the Testimonium is too short even for Josephus has been countered by speculating that Josephus could have written at greater length but had most of it chopped because of negativity. But in that case, the interpolator should have felt permitted to insert something of greater length to replace it. And the more material Josephus is suggested to have included, even if negative, the more scope an interpolator would have had to give it a different spin, and the more likelihood Christian commentators before Eusebius would have taken notice of it and attempted to rebut it.

The Argument to Gospel Character

Supporters of a Josephan original have alleged that the distilled Testimonium has virtually no Gospel flavor, whereas the latter would be expected if these lines too were from a Christian interpolator. The miracles are only said to be “wonderful works,” the Jews are not overly demonized, the “winning over many Greeks” is not a feature of the Gospel picture. But “wonderful works” is how Josephus describes miracles, as in the case of the prophet Elisha (Ant. IX, 4, 3 / 58). And an interpolator masquerading as the Jew Josephus could well have avoided overly demonizing his fellow countrymen; in any case, a veiled criticism of the Jewish leadership is present. As to the last point, an interpolator in a later century would be part of a church now made up of gentiles, and reading the beginnings of that process back into the career of Jesus would be (and was) a natural tendency, regardless of whether the Gospels clearly described it or not.

At the same time, the absence of any reference to the resurrection—even a skeptical one—in the “authentic” Testimonium is an admitted problem for defenders of an original passage. It is hardly likely that Josephus would have been ignorant of this central claim of the Christian faith, and even less likely that he would not have wanted to inform his Roman readers of the Christians’ outlandish belief that their founder had walked out of his tomb. Once again, some have postulated that parts of Josephus’ original account were cut out, replaced by the new Christian material. But, once more, this is unfounded speculation, for no version of the Testimonium that we possess hints at a different treatment by Josephus of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, a treatment that would almost certainly have been characterized by skepticism or ridicule.

Witness to the Testimonium Flavianum

Most commentators who argue for an authentic original reconstruct it along these lines:

“Now about this time there lived Jesus a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works and a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place had come to love him did not forsake him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, continues to the present day.”

This is invariably described as a “neutral” account. But such an evaluation is not realistic. A passage which describes Jesus as “a wise man” who “performed many wonderful works,” who “won over many Jews and gentiles,” who was perhaps a teacher of the truth, cannot be described as neutral, and would hardly be viewed as such by Christians. And yet, the startling fact is that during the first two centuries when such a passage is claimed to have existed in all manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews, not a single Christian commentator refers to it in any surviving work.

This includes Justin (mid-2nd century), Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd century), Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria (turn of 3rd century), Origen and Hippolytus (early 3rd century), Cyprian (mid-3rd century) Lactantius and Arnobius (late 3rd century).

All these apologists are intimately concerned with defending Christianity against pagan hostility, yet not one of them draws on what may have been the sole example of a non-negative comment on Christianity by an outsider before Constantine’s conversion. If a figure of the stature of Josephus had said the things contained in the alleged “authentic” Testimonium, can one really believe that every Christian commentator for over two centuries would regard nothing in it as worthy of mention? Defenders of an original testimony to Jesus by Josephus must maintain that every one of those prolific Christian writers mentioned above, along with several minor ones, was motivated to keep silent and deny the most natural inclination to note and address what a famous historian had said about the founder of their faith, and despite, in some cases, being willing to address him on other matters. Their very oeuvres also demonstrate that a Testimonium which might have been hostile would similarly have compelled a reaction of defense and rebuttal, so that the claim that these writers were silent on account of a perceived animosity toward Jesus by Josephus fails to work either.

There is so much in that ‘neutral’ reconstructed account which Christians could have put a spin on in defense of themselves and Jesus, so much that could have provided succor, support and even ammunition for what those Christian apologists were attempting to do in their writing. Origen alone spent a quarter of a million words contending against Celsus, a pagan who had written a book against Christian beliefs some half a century earlier. Origen draws on all manner of proofs and witnesses to the arguments he makes, including citing Josephus (11 times in several different works). In Book I, chapters 46, 67 and 68 of Contra Celsum, Origen reports that Celsus had disparaged the miracles of Jesus, accusing Jesus of having learned his wonder-working tricks from the Egyptians. Origen counters this by claiming that Jesus’ deeds were superior to anything contained in the Greek myths, and that Jesus performed his miracles in order to win people over to his commendable ethical teachings, something no Egyptian trickster could emulate. An appeal here to the declaration by Josephus, a respected Jewish historian, that Jesus had been a “wise man” who performed “wonderful works,” would have served to place Jesus and his miracles in the favorable light in which Origen is trying to cast them. (We know that Origen had read the Antiquities of the Jews, particularly the 18th book, because in Contra Celsum (I, 47) he summarizes what Josephus said about John the Baptist in Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2 / 116-119.)

John Meier (A Marginal Jew, p.79) offers a questionable explanation for the blanket silence on the Testimonium before Eusebius. Meier’s argument is that the Christian Fathers would have recognized that Josephus did not accept Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, or believe that he had risen from the dead. The Testimonium witnessed to Josephus’ unbelief and was therefore avoided. But should the apologists have found this disconcerting in a non-Christian? They dealt with unbelief every day, faced it head on, tried to counter and even win over the opponent. Justin’s major work, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, did just that. Origen, in his confrontation with Celsus, did not hesitate to criticize Josephus for attributing the fall of Jerusalem to God’s punishment on the Jews for the death of James, rather than for the death of Jesus. In fact, Origen calls attention to the very point which Meier suggests Christian commentators shied away from, that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. It hardly seems that the silence on the Testimonium by all the apologists prior to Eusebius can be explained in this manner.

Positive or Negative?

As part of their argument that an original Testimonium was avoided because of its alleged hostility, some have suggested the possibility of translating certain elements of the Testimonium in a more neutral, even disparaging, way. The phrase “wonderful works” (paradoxōn ergōn) may, it is claimed, mean “startling (or unusual) works,” implying no favorable evaluation, perhaps even a denigrating of such works as no better than tricks meant to dupe their audiences. But this would be inconsistent with the succeeding remark about those who “receive the truth with pleasure,” which is often included in the “authentic” original. In any case, the adjective paradoxos is regularly used by the writers of the time to convey something positive, even specifically miraculous, such as by Philo in On the Life of Moses I, 38 when speaking of the miracles of God in the desert of the Exodus; or by Luke in 5:26 when commenting on the miracles performed by Jesus; or by Origen in Contra Celsum I, 6 in the phrase “the wonders which the Savior performed.” Josephus himself, in the Antiquities, employs the word some 20 times, most of them referring to the wonders or favorable events brought about by God, such as Moses deriving water from striking the rock (III, 1, 7 / 35), or the Hebrews enjoying a “wonderful deliverance” (paradoxou sōtērias, III, 1, 1 / 1 and II, 16, 4 / 345). The phrase itself, “paradoxa erga,” is used in Antiquities (IX, 8, 6 / 182) to refer to the works of the prophet Elisha. The word never implies something outright negative, except possibly in the mind of the recipient, such as Nebuchadnezzar being gripped with fear at the “surprising” appearance of the ominous writing on the wall that foretold his doom (X, 11, 2 / 233).

Thus, that anything other than positively-viewed events and miracles (a phenomenon which Josephus believed in) was intended in the Testimonium verse is not persuasive. In the same way, “He drew over (to him) many Jews and many of the Greeks” can also be seen as a positive statement (it is sometimes translated as “won over”). Here, “drew/won over” (epēgageto), contrary to the suggestion of some, does not imply deception or leading anyone into error, particularly in light of the preceding comment about “men who receive the truth with pleasure,” and the succeeding remark that those who had loved him before his death did not forsake him. The attempt to reduce the tone of the Testimonium from positive to fully neutral or even negative is a strained one, and seems entirely apologetic. Even given the possibility that some of these terms could have been ambiguous enough to be taken in a negative way, this would hardly guarantee that at least some of those Christian writers would not have understood them as positive and thus should inevitably have made an appeal to them. In any case, as pointed out, if negativity were perceived in the text, this in itself should have presented no universal impediment to making mention of them. (We can at least be sure that no negativity in any of these phrases was perceived by someone who supposedly only doctored an original Testimonium, for they were left standing.)

Chrysostom and Photius

Frank Zindler (op.cit., p.45-48) has called attention to another Christian commentator who, though versed in Josephus’ writings and employing them in his homilies, nevertheless makes no reference to any version of the Testimonium: St. John Chrysostom, who wrote late in the 4th century. In Homily 76, he subscribes to the by now well-established Christian view that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the crucifixion of Jesus. He appeals to Josephus as evidence that the destruction was indeed horrific, something that could only be explained by a deed as monstrous as deicide. Also, he says, there can be no truth to the fantasy that Josephus was actually a Christian believer, “For he was both a Jew, and a determined Jew, very zealous.” Yet there is no discussion of any Josephan testimony to Jesus himself by Chrysostom, and certainly not to the question of what the historian might have had to say about Jesus’ messianic or ‘more than human’ status. Other homilies by Chrysostom contain other appeals to Josephus, but none to the Testimonium. Most striking is Homily 13. Here he says that Josephus imputes the destructive war to the murder of John the Baptist. Nowhere in the extant texts of Josephus is such an imputation to be found, one which also stands in contradiction to statements by Origen and Eusebius that Josephus regarded the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment by God for the murder of James the Just—an allegation, too, which cannot be found in surviving texts. (Josephus actually implies at one point that the destruction of the war was due to the Zealot’s murder of the former High Priest Ananus.)

In addition to Chrysostom, others of his era fail to mention the Testimonium. Steve Mason observes (op.cit., p.57) that “during the century after Eusebius there are five church fathers, including Augustine, who certainly had many occasions to find it useful and who cite passages from Josephus but not this one.” Augustine lived and worked in North Africa, while Eusebius and Jerome (who do refer to it) were in the Levant, so the interpolation may not have worked its way to more western areas until later in the 5th century.

Such things, along with the situation in other writers to be noted shortly, illustrates the diversity of emendation which various Christian scribes were performing on Josephus in a variety of quarters, most of them seemingly not cognizant of the contradictory or missing material in other copies being used throughout the Christian world. Indeed, that situation apparently continued for centuries. Zindler makes a good case (p.48-50) for concluding that the 9th century Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in compiling his Library (a review of several hundred ancient books, including treatises on the works of Josephus) apparently possessed a copy of Josephus which contained no Testimonium, nor even those interpolations we conclude were introduced to make Josephus say that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to the death of James the Just, or of John the Baptist. As Zindler says,

“Since Photius was highly motivated to report ancient attestations to the beginnings of Christianity, his silence here argues strongly that neither the Testimonium nor any variant thereof was present in the manuscript he read. This also argues against the notion that the Testimonium was created to supplant an originally hostile comment in the authentic text of Josephus. Had a negative notice of a false messiah been present in the text read by Photius, it is inconceivable he could have restrained himself from comment thereon.”

Photius does discuss the Antiquities 18 passage on John the Baptist. To think that he would do so yet pass up one about Christ himself—no matter what its natureis, as Zindler says, quite inconceivable. Photius at a number of points also seems to quote marginal notes from his copy of Josephus, giving evidence of the ease with which such things could have found their way into the original text and given rise to debates about what was authentic to Josephus’ own writings. And before leaving Zindler on Photius, we can note a feature that will figure in our discussion of the other Josephan reference to Jesus. The reading in Photius’ copy of that allegedly indisputable phrase in Antiquities 20, “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James,” apparently read simply, “James, the brother of the Lord.”

The Term “Messiah” / Jerome and Pseudo-Hegesippus

Much of the debate over the Testimonium Flavianum centers on the term “Messiah.” Its appearance in the phrase “he was the Messiah” is part of a sentiment which, as it stands, cannot be by Josephus. But could there have been a more neutral sentiment expressed in an original? It is suggested that the line could have read “he was believed to be the Messiah.” This, in fact, is the language used by Jerome toward the end of the 4th century in his Latin rendition of the Testimonium in De Viris Illustribus 13. However, the remainder of the Testimonium as he translates it is so close to the extant version that this is the only significant difference, thus placing in Jerome’s version all the dubious elements we have seen and will continue to see which make virtually the whole passage difficult to accept as authentic to Josephus. Can we reasonably expect, therefore, that this one phrase, more innocent than Eusebius’ recorded version of it, somehow survived intact and reflects a Josephan original thought, while virtually everything else has to be set aside as impossible or highly questionable? That does not seem feasible.

What may be more feasible is that the two versions of this key statement represent two stages of Christian doctoring. Jerome would need to be working from a different Christian text than Eusebius, since the two versions of the Messiah statement are incompatible. On the other hand, might it be possible that Jerome did not find the phrase “he was believed to be the Messiah” in a Greek copy of Josephus but himself altered the text of Eusebius’ Testimonium to so read, realizing that Josephus would not have been likely to say outright that “he was the Messiah”? Louis H. Feldman [Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, p.58] has made such a suggestion in regard to the Arabic version in which the phrase appears in yet another form: “he was perhaps the Messiah.” Feldman remarks: “This may have been due to Agapius’ realization that, as a Jew, Josephus could hardly have accepted Jesus as the Messiah; and so, like Jerome, he qualifies Josephus’ statement.” Feldman looks to be suggesting that Jerome was indeed responsible for the unique reading of “he was believed to be the Messiah,” a not unreasonable possibility. Besides, Jerome worked much of his life in the Levant, the same region as did Eusebius and shortly after him, so the likelihood of him having access to a different manuscript line than Eusebius, with a different interpolation of the Testimonium, may be less easy to postulate.

In fact, Feldman (as do others) discusses ever more distant relatives of divergent Testimonium appearances, in the Latin Pseudo-Hegesippus (a product of the late 4th century and once attributed to Ambrose) and the Hebrew “Josippon” (a late Jewish paraphrase of Josephus which seems to be dependent upon Pseudo-Hegesippus), as well as in the Slavonic version we will look at. In all of these, the passages akin to the Testimonium are only ‘reminiscent’ of the standard Testimonium we find in our surviving manuscripts of the Antiquities; all have taken significant liberties. Commentators usually interpret such passages, indeed the entire works they are found in, as “free paraphrases” of Josephus, all of which leads to ever more theories and speculations about what an ‘authentic’ Testimonium could have contained. But it is all brittle conjecture, since a much more sensible interpretation is that such “free” renderings are the product of their authors. Indeed, Feldman makes the point that these works should be regarded as “histories in their own right,” whose authors felt free to cast according to their own styles and interests, drawing on a variety of other material as well. Thus, we need not postulate that Pseudo-Hegesippus or Agapius or the Slavonic author was being faithful to some unknown, and perhaps authentic, version of Josephus, but that each one freely paraphrased whatever texts he had inherited.2

2 Albert A. Bell, Jr. (Josephus, Judaism and Christianity: ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, “Josephus and Pseudo-Hegesippus,” p.351) has this interesting comment: “If pseudo-Hegesippus was not merely translating Josephus, what was he doing? He was writing history in the only way ancient historians knew how, by adapting an earlier work. [One would have to say that there was the odd notable exception, Thucydides certainly being one.] Adaptation was the lifeblood of historiography in antiquity. Seneca says that the writer who comes last to a subject has merely to select and rearrange from his predecessors’ material in order to compose a new work.” A corollary to this procedure would be the permissible addition of one’s own material to fill in gaps or a reworking to ‘correct’ one’s sources.

Such a principle, as intimated above, could have extended to Jerome’s unique wording of the Testimonium reference to the Messiah. Furthermore, Feldman (p.57) notes a curious statistic. In his writings, Jerome cites Josephus “no fewer than 90 times and refers to him as a second Livy (Epistula ad Eustochium 22), (but) he cites the Testimonium only this one time.” Might a copy of an authentic Josephus which Jerome may have possessed have failed to contain it, and he drew on one which did (or on Eusebius) only when the temptation was too pressing?3 Incidentally, Feldman, after reviewing the lack of witness to the Testimonium before Eusebius, and even after, remarks: “To be sure, this is the argumentium ex silentio, but as a cumulative argument it has considerable force.” And so it does.

3 Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, in The Jesus Legend (p.197), also note Jerome’s failure to use the Testimonium anywhere else in his writings, despite his practice of citing Josephus. They argue: “Had Jerome not mentioned the Testimonium this one time, critics would have counted him among the number of those whose silence supposedly proves the Testimonium did not exist. As it stands, his one reference proves that he did know it existed but simply saw no reason to refer to it—and certainly not as an apologetic. We have every reason to suppose that other early church fathers treated it in a similar fashion.”
     But in a footnote (#103) they admit: “It is likely that Jerome knew of the Testimonium from the copy of Eusebius available to him.” This nullifies their argument, for the telltale silence on the Testimonium relates to the pre-Eusebian period, and if Jerome derived his knowledge of the passage not from a Josephan manuscript but from Eusebius himself, his failure to mention it outside of Illustrious Men becomes irrelevant. Besides, one writer’s failure to do so (for whatever reason) hardly provides a blanket excuse for so many before Eusebius to be guilty of the same. The strength of the argument about the lack of witness to the Testimonium through two centuries of Christian writers lies in the fact that so many are silent on it, especially during the period when it would have been most useful for apologetic purposes, before Christianity became the state religion (which it had by Jerome’s time) and was less in need of apology.
     In the same footnote, Eddy and Boyd further remark (appealing to Alice Whealey) that the mythicist claim that Eusebius could have authored the Testimonium is “undercut” by the observation that Eusebius and Pseudo-Hegesippus are “independently transmitt[ing]” different fourth-century versions of the passage. This fails to take into account the “free paraphrase” nature of Pseudo-Hegesippus, whose version (which we are about to look at) fails to reflect anything close to an authentic Josephan passage. It in fact owes much to the Christian version, and could be a paraphrase of Eusebius himself, since Pseudo-Hegesippus was written a half century after him.

We can see the invention used by those “free paraphrase” writers quite clearly in Pseudo-Hegesippus. This is a rewriting of Josephus’ Jewish War, with additional material from other historians, a paraphrase presenting the history of the War in keeping with Christian interests, especially the matter of the destruction of Jerusalem and the misfortunes visited upon the Jews; from this, the author drew the moral that God had abandoned the Jews in favor of the Christians. In Book II, chapter 9, he has been outlining how the Jews have deserved the “punishments for their crimes,” particularly the murder of Jesus. He brings in the testimony of Josephus that

“there was in that time a wise man, if it is proper however, he said, to call the creator of marvelous works a man, who appeared living to his disciples after three days of his death in accordance with the writings of the prophets, who prophesied both this and innumerable others things full of miracles about him, from which began the community of Christians and penetrated into every tribe of men nor has any nation of the Roman world remained which was left without worship of him.”4

4 This translation of the Latin Pseudo-Hegesippus is a rough one from Dr. Wade Blocker, who “has no time to turn it into a real translation but has himself allowed it to appear on line so other people may use it.” (Quote and translation from an online article by Roger Pearse: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/hegesippus_00_eintro.htm.) The name itself actually has nothing to do with the Hegesippus of the 2nd century, a Christian historian whose works are lost except for fragments in Eusebius, but is regarded as a corruption of the name “Josephus.” From internal evidence, the writing has been dated to the late 4th century.

On this the author then comments: “If the Jews don’t believe us, they should believe their own people. Josephus said this, whom they themselves think (is) very great…” Upon which he launches into a reading of Josephus’ mind in which he alleges that Josephus faithfully recorded history even though he wasn’t a believer. “He does not prejudge the truth because he did not believe, but he added more to his testimony; because although disbelieving and unwilling, he did not refuse.” The author’s belief (possibly influenced by Origen) that Josephus did not regard Jesus as the Messiah is governing his remarks here; perhaps it even led him to drop any “he was the Messiah” from the sources he was using. The author concludes these remarks by saying: “In this the eternal power of Jesus Christ shone forth, that even the leading men of the synagogue who delivered him up to death acknowledged him to be God.” Whether the writer thought he could deduce this from whatever record he had of Josephus (perhaps from ‘he was more than a man’), or if this was his own “free” contribution, perhaps prompted by another source, it all goes to show that anyone witnessing to the Testimonium after it was established in Eusebius apparently felt free to deal with it in any way he wished, governed by whatever impressions of Josephus he might have absorbed or by any ideas about Jesus that had evolved since. If Christian writers could alter the texts of their own scriptures according to what they were convinced an older writer meant and should have said, they could certainly do so to a non-Christian historian. The whole modern industry dedicated to recovering an ‘authentic’ Testimonium Flavianum totters on quicksand.

Taken with the negative witness of Chrysostom and Photius, and the contents of Origen yet to be examined, we have a long picture of widespread if uncoordinated doctoring and re-rendering of Josephus in the direction of Christian interests, effected at various times by various Christian and perhaps other scribes. The variety encountered points to a mélange of manuscript lines with different amendments, all of it in flux over the first several centuries. The earliest surviving manuscript of Josephus comes from the 9th century, with others to follow over the next few centuries before the printing press guaranteed permanent and uniform preservation. The earliest of the Antiquities comes from the 11th century. All of them had passed through the Christian reproduction process. The vagaries of that reproduction had whittled down the strongest contenders for survival, and the Christian forgery industry now presented a united front on what the Jewish historian had really said about the presumed founder of their faith.

Josephus and the “Messiah”

Regardless of the actual wording of the “Messiah” comment in the Testimonium, are we to believe that any use of the term can be attributed to Josephus? The word “Messiah” itself never appears in Josephus’ writings outside of the two Jesus passages under discussion (Antiquities 18 and 20). Nowhere else, in any connection, does he refer to “Christos” (“Messiah” in Greek), and he has almost nothing to say about this prominent Jewish myth of a coming savior and king who shall be installed as ruler over the nations—no doubt because of Roman sensibilities (or his own, about a tradition he apparently felt no attraction to). It is generally acknowledged that he has deliberately avoided addressing the subject for politic purposes. The one obvious exception to this—understandable because of its nature—is the passage in Jewish War VI, 5, 4 (6.312-13) in which he declares the Roman general and emperor Vespasian to be the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies. But note his language:

“But now, what did most elevate them in undertaking this war was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, ‘about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.’ The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular; and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now, this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.”

Here Josephus has turned the topic to his own advantage. But as in English, his Greek description fails to make any use of the term Messiah (Christos), nor was he led to enlarge on the subject here or anywhere else. All of this makes it highly dubious that he was willing to throw out a passing opinion on Jesus, committed or not, which used the term, especially as he provides almost nothing in the way of explanatory material to enlighten his Greek and Roman readers as to its significance. (An even greater lack and unlikelihood will be seen in the other Jesus passage which contains the term Christos, Antiquities 20.)

The argument that his readers were expected to be familiar with the term is quite unpersuasive. Views on the Messiah within Judaism were hopelessly varied—there may not even have been a ‘mainstream’ widely-accepted view—and to expect the average Roman and Greek reader for whom Josephus was writing to possess even a modicum of knowledge about the diverse and convoluted mythology of messianic expectation would have been very unrealistic. Moreover, the term was rooted in the word for “ointment” (chrisma) and meant, strictly speaking, the anointed one. But all Jewish kings and high priests were “anointed” and thus were, strictly speaking, Christos, though the popular myth about a coming Messiah (mashiach in Hebrew) applied to a singular expected figure. (Some Jewish apocalyptic thought seems to have expected two of them, as in certain Qumran documents.) The point is, any passing knowledge on the part of Josephus’ readers with the “Christos” subject in Judaism would face this welter of meaning and tradition, and without some guidance by Josephus, they would have been left in pointless confusion had he thrown out the bare term in whatever version it may have appeared in an original Testimonium. A pagan readership that was somewhat familiar with Jewish customs might know “anointed” ones chiefly in the context of kings and High Priests, and thus identifying Jesus as “the anointed one” would have been for them entirely misleading.

Even if that readership knew of Jewish Messiah expectation, Josephus’ linking of Jesus with the Messiah would have been further misleading, in that such expectation was in no way fulfilled in Jesus, and certainly not in any ‘authentic’ portrayal of him by Josephus in all those reconstructed or postulated versions of the Testimonium. Could Josephus seriously expect no puzzlement on his readers’ part by his attachment of the “Messiah” term to one who had been ignominiously crucified and never came close to becoming king of the Jews, let alone of the nations? His readers may well have wondered how anyone, Jew or gentile, could have come to believe that this executed preacher and miracle-worker had been the Messiah of Jewish prophecy, a wonderment that would have extended to their curiosity over why Josephus was presenting them with such an unexplained conundrum. Since Josephus lived and wrote his work in Rome, a member of Roman aristocratic society, he was surely aware of all this complexity and peril inherent in the subject of the Christos, and of the necessity to explain it in detail. If for no other reason, he would likely have simply avoided the subject altogether.

Steve Mason makes the observation (op.cit., p.228) that “in Greek (Christos) means simply ‘wetted’ or ‘anointed.’ Within the Jewish world, this was an extremely significant term….But for someone who did not know Jewish tradition or Christian preaching, the rather deliberate statement that this Jesus was ‘the wetted’ or perhaps ‘the greased’ would sound most peculiar.”

Perhaps because of such considerations, most reconstructions of a Josephan “original” have avoided including any version of a reference to “the Messiah.” But this creates another quandary. The final statement, universally included in such reconstructions, has Josephus saying: “And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, continues to the present day.” If Josephus had made no reference to the Christos previously, what sense would this make to the reader? Linking the tribe known as “Christians” to the figure of “Jesus” and saying that it was named after him would be a hapless non-sequitur in the absence of any reference to the term “Christ” to properly elucidate the word “Christians.”

And what of the statement by Origen that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ? It is often claimed that it constitutes an oblique reference to an original Testimonium which was silent on such a thing, or to one that was openly hostile to Jesus. The latter possibility is sometimes treated as a ‘slam-dunk’ argument in favor of some mention of Jesus by Josephus. But rather than assume that Josephus’ silence on the matter within a discussion of Jesus would impel Origen’s comment, or speculate that the historian had openly denied it, something we have no textual evidence for and a lot of contraindication, we should look for some positive piece of information in Josephus which could have led Origen to make such a statement, even in the context of Josephus having made no reference to Jesus whatsoever. A good candidate is his declaration in Jewish War VI, 5, 4, which we have just looked at, that the Jewish prophecies were really about the victorious emperor Vespasian. This statement, which left no room for Jesus as the promised Messiah, could well have been sufficient to prompt Origen’s comment that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ. Of course, Origen would have been assuming a knowledge of Jesus on Josephus’ part, even in the absence of a Testimonium in his copy of the historian’s work. Just what that assumption rested on we will see during a later examination of the Antiquities 20 passage.

The Table of Contents

G. A. Wells, Frank Zindler and others have pointed out that our Greek manuscripts of Josephus contain tables of contents for each book of the Antiquities, and there is evidence that such tables were already attached to Latin manuscripts of the work as early as the 5th century. H. Thackeray, as quoted by Zindler (op.cit., p.51) stated that the chapter headings “are ostensibly written by a Jew,” and “though it is improbable that these more elaborate chapter headings are the production of his [Josephus’] pen, they may well be not far removed from him in date.” The Table of Contents for Book 18 lists 20 topics dealt with in the book, but there is no mention of the Testimonium among them. Admittedly, the list is not exhaustive. For chapter 3, the Table mentions the contents of paragraph 1, Pilate’s attempt to bring effigies of Caesar into the city and the protests of the people, but it fails to make mention of the aqueduct affair immediately following. It jumps to paragraph 5 on the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Tiberius and from there to the main subject of the next chapter, Pilate’s slaughter of some Samaritans and his resulting dismissal from his post as governor of Judea.

If Thackeray’s impression is correct, we might envision a Jewish editor drawing up a Table of Contents for the Antiquities early in its publishing history, and not bothering to put in mention of a short passage on Jesus; although even if this were as early as the 2nd century in Rome, one might suppose that Christianity was gaining a profile in the city by then, and this being the only discussion of any sort by Josephus on this new religion, even a non-Christian editor might have felt drawn to make note of it in the contents table. As Feldman says, “one must find it hard to believe that such a remarkable passage would be omitted by anyone, let alone a Christian summarizing the work.”

Why no later Christian scribe interpolated such a thing, particularly following its witness in the time of Eusebius, is something of a mystery, especially since a Latin contents table of the 5th century suffered the insertion of “Concerning John the Baptist” where it fails to be noted in the Greek table. We should also note that the Table of Contents for Antiquities 20 contains no mention of Ananus’ execution of James, brother of Jesus. While this reference constitutes only a few words in a chapter concerned with the fate of Ananus and the governorship of Albinus, we might expect a Christian editor to be similarly led to insert such a reference to commemorate the assumed death of James the Just. Yet there is no sign of such an entry in any Greek contents list.

The silence of the contents tables speaks to the likelihood that no Testimonium originally stood in chapter 3 of Book 18, but it would also seem to indicate that the insertion of such a reference at the time of interpolation of the Testimonium, or even of a reworking of an existing passage, was ignored. Perhaps at such a time the Table of Contents had not yet been added to Josephus’ works, and later when it was, putting a reference to the interpolated passage was simply overlooked. In any scenario, the failure may be curious, but it is also yet another nail in the Testimonium’s coffin.

The Silence of Jewish War

In Josephus’ earlier work, Jewish War, it has long been noted that there is no mention whatever of Jesus. In Book II, chapter 9, Josephus outlines (paragraphs 2 to 4) the same two crises that erupted in Judea under Pontius Pilate as he would later recount in Antiquities 18: the bringing of effigies of Caesar on the Roman standards into Jerusalem, and the use of Temple funds to finance the new aqueducts. In the Antiquities, these are followed by the Testimonium to Jesus. The question has naturally been raised as to why Josephus, if in a later work he inserted something about Jesus in close association with these crises, did not mention him at the same point in Jewish War.

One might note that the opening of paragraph 4 about the aqueducts, “After this he [Pilate] raised another disturbance,” is very similar to the opening of the paragraph in the Antiquities following the Testimonium, “About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.” The former, of course, makes sense in Jewish War as introducing the disturbance over the aqueducts immediately following the disturbance surrounding the effigies. The latter, on the other hand, used in Antiquities to introduce the calamity of the Jewish expulsion from Rome, does not immediately follow the earlier disturbances. Instead, it is abutted against the Testimonium, interfering with the logical connection to the previous ‘sad calamity,’ the aqueduct affair. The near-identical nature of those respective opening lines suggests once again that in the Antiquities, just as in Jewish War, the reference to “another sad calamity” in the opening of paragraph 4 was designed to follow immediately upon an incident of similar nature, namely the aqueduct discussion of paragraph 2, not upon anything resembling the Testimonium.

Ancient Christians must have been painfully aware of the void in Jewish War, for although no corresponding passage (that we know of) was interpolated into the work to remedy the omission, we do have a few manuscripts of Jewish War in which the Testimonium itself, from the Antiquities, was inserted, either at the beginning or the end of the manuscript, or in one case at the end of Book II. We can also note that Jewish War contained no paragraph on John the Baptist such as appears in Antiquities 18, and this too was similarly inserted in some manuscripts. (There will be a word to say later about whether the Baptist passage in Antiquities might be an interpolation as well, with Josephus saying nothing about that figure.)

The Language of the Testimonium and the Role of Eusebius

The first sign of the existence of the Testimonium Flavianum comes with Eusebius, the church historian who wrote early in the 4th century. He quotes the passage exactly as we have it now, with all the pro-Christian elements intact. From Eusebius’ time and for the next 13 centuries, no one in Christendom doubted that Josephus had written that Jesus “was the Messiah.”

When the authenticity of the Testimonium found in all extant manuscripts of Antiquities 18 was first questioned by Christian scholars in the late Renaissance, one of the first suggestions was that Eusebius himself had crafted and interpolated it into Josephus. The idea has remained alive since then, even if not held by a majority of those who today regard the Testimonium as a complete forgery. One who has made a case for the Testimonium being Eusebius’ product is Ken Olson in an article for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (“Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum”).5

5 CBQ 61 (1999), p.305-322. Online: (The URL is incredibly long and complex. Search: “Ken Olson, Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum”.)

Olson’s approach is to examine the language, and this is where we shall do the same, bringing in some of the views of other modern scholars. (One of the latter will be Robert Eisler, in his The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, a book responsible for creating a controversial physical description of Jesus himself which we will examine closely in a later section.)

Whereas a common argument in favor of partial authenticity of the Testimonium is that it supposedly contains Josephan terminology and non-Christian content, Olson maintains that, overall, the language of the entire Testimonium is a better match for that of Eusebius. He starts by pointing out that the Testimonium is quoted by Eusebius in three of his works, the Demonstratio Evangelica (D.E.), the History of the Church (H.E.), both in Greek, and the Theophany, extant only in Syriac. In all cases, Eusebius calls upon the Testimonium, which he identifies as from Josephus’ Antiquities 18, as a witness to Jesus’ good character.

Men Wise and Divine

This concern was also present, Olson notes, in a work earlier than all three above, the Adversus Hieroclem, a work in which Eusebius “refuted the unfavorable comparison that Hierocles made between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana.” In considering the status of the latter, whom Apollonius’ biographer Philostratus called a “sage” (sophos), Eusebius says he is willing to consider Apollonius a “kind of sage” (sophon tina), whereas Jesus, alone of all men, he designates a “theios anēr,” a “divine man.”

The question which Olson does not ask is this: why, in this earliest work in which he was concerned to cast Jesus in a favorable light, did Eusebius not appeal to the Testimonium, as he was to do in similar circumstances in two later works? We can hardly presume that he only discovered Josephus in the interim. There is no reason why the Testimonium could not have served his purpose in Adversus Hieroclem. What we may very well presume is that in the interim Eusebius decided it would be a good idea to fabricate something by Josephus to serve this purpose. On the other hand, one could object that the Testimonium has Josephus call Jesus simply a “wise man” (sophos anēr), which only places him on the level that Eusebius is (conditionally) according to Apollonius, although the Testimonium does go on to suggest that he was more than a man. Perhaps Eusebius reasoned that Josephus would not have ranked Jesus any higher; it was on the same level, for him, as Solomon and Elisha. So this would have to suffice, and Eusebius compensated by having Josephus augment the “man” status, as well as declare him to be the Messiah. In any case, a declaration by Josephus that Jesus was a “wise man” would have served, in Eusebius’ Adversus Hieroclem, to counter the accusation by Apollonius’ supporters that Jesus was of a lower status than the man of Tyana, and thus Eusebius ought to have been drawn to make use of the Testimonium in that early work.

Poetic Miracles

In the Demonstratio Evangelica (Bk. III, 4-5) Olson points out that “Eusebius promises to refute those who either deny that Jesus worked any miracles at all, or that if he did, it was by wizardry and deception.” Immediately thereafter, he produces a passage by Josephus which in its opening sentences declares Jesus to have been “a maker of wonderful works” (paradoxōn ergōn poiētēs). This Greek phrase Olson identifies as

“…markedly Eusebian. Poiētēs never occurs in Josephus in the sense of ‘maker’ rather than ‘poet,’ and the only time Josephus combines forms of paradoxos and poieō is in the sense of ‘acting contrary to custom’ (Antiquities XII, 2, 11 / 87) rather than ‘making miracles.’ Combining forms of paradoxos and poieō in the sense of ‘miracle-making’ is exceedingly common in Eusebius, but he seems to reserve the three words paradoxos, poieō, and ergon, used together, to describe Jesus (D.E. 114-115, 123, 125; H.E. I, 2.23).

Robert Eisler confirms (op.cit., p.53) that in Josephus poiētēs “always means ‘poet,’ whilst in the meaning of ‘doer’ or ‘perpetrator’ it is frequent in Christian writers.” Steve Mason (op.cit., p.231) is another who confirms that to Josephus poiētēs consistently means poet.

Winning over Jews and Greeks

In regard to the line “he won over many Jews and many Greeks,” Olson identifies this as reasonably Eusebian, in contrast to those who claim that a Christian would have been able to tell from the Gospels that Jesus never preached to Gentiles nor, apart from the odd contact, consorted with them. I have often said that Christian believers have always attributed anything they needed at any given time to Jesus and the New Testament writings, even in the face of the evident contradictions and lack of support for such attributions in the record. (To such ends, of course, they often deliberately altered that record.) Olson demonstrates this by noting that Eusebius himself attributed gentile contact to Jesus: “by teaching and miracles he revealed the powers of His Godhead to all equally whether Greeks or Jews (D.E. 400).” This, despite Matthew’s directive put into Jesus’ mouth that his disciples not go to the gentiles. Olson further notes that “the paired opposition of Jews and Greeks is especially common in the first two books of the Demonstratio.” Josephus, on the other hand, ought to have been less concerned with pairing the two; and the winning over of Greeks, if we were to accept the Gospels as accurate on this question, would not have been based on factual tradition such as Josephus is alleged to have been drawing on.6 

6 Eddy and Boyd (op.cit., p.194), fall into the same trap: “The statement that Jesus ‘won over’ many Jews and Gentiles seems inconsistent with a Christian interpolator. For the Christian tradition, as contained in the Gospels, gives no indication that Jesus ever evangelized the Gentiles….As Meier notes, it seems much less likely that a Christian interpolator would have contradicted the Gospels’ own picture of Jesus’s ministry than that Josephus himself simply ‘retrojected the situation of his own day,’ wherein many among Jesus’s followers were Gentiles. In fact, ‘naïve retrojection is a common trait of Greco-Roman historians’.” That even evangelical scholars could make such a statement with a straight face is remarkable, given the blatant propensity of Christian scribes throughout the early centuries to amend their own documents to reflect new developments and retroject such evolving outlooks into those past writers. As Bart Ehrman has eloquently said (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. xii): “scribes sometimes changed their scriptural texts to make them say what they were already known to mean.” To that we need to add that they were also concerned to make previous writers say what the scribe thought they ought to have said, and that included non-Christian authors as well.

Olson finds further marks of Eusebius in the Testimonium line that “even though Pilate condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him did not cease (to do so).” He points out that “this is Eusebius’ central argument in D.E. III, 5.” Here Eusebius suggests that if Jesus were really a deceiver, or charlatan, surely his followers would have abandoned him after his ignominious death, and not remained faithful to him and his message. It seems quite a coincidence that in conjunction with saying this, Eusebius produces a Josephan text which also records the very fact of Jesus’ followers remaining faithful. Besides, such an implied laudatory comment in the Testimonium, because of its very nature, would be unlikely on the pen of Josephus.

The line about Jesus rising on the third day as the prophets had foretold, while admitted by scholars to be a Christian insertion into whatever Josephus might have written, also fits closely with Eusebius’ surrounding agenda and argumentation, for Eusebius in the Demonstratio has been arguing that “ancient prophecy, specifically Jewish prophecy, had indicated who Jesus would be and what he would do. His miracles are not to be set aside as based on magic but are to be accepted as predicted by the prophets.” We ought to marvel at the convenience with which so many elements of the Testimonium have served Eusebius’ arguments.

Up Until Now

There are interesting features in the final phrase, “until now, the tribe of the Christians, who are named after him, has not died out.” Olson observes that in Adversus Hieroclem Eusebius argues that, unlike Apollonius of Tyana, Jesus has had effects that have lasted “up until now.” Jay Raskin, a self-published researcher active on the Internet, in his monumental and adventuresome The Evolution of Christs and Christianities, has identified (p.80-98) a literary fingerprint which he calls Eusebius’ “Tell”—a characteristic repeated “writer’s trope, a habit that a writer has that is relatively unique to a writer and acts as a fingerprint in identifying that writer’s work whenever it appears” (p.80). Raskin notes that in paraphrasing and even when ostensibly quoting the work of eight writers directly, from eight time periods about eight different topics, the “same telltale tell” is to be found; moreover, it also appears when Eusebius is merely speaking for himself.

Raskin quotes several passages from the Theophany, Adversus Hieroclem, the Demonstratio and History of the Church, all of which use this characteristic Tell. It is extremely important for Eusebius, as a proof of their veracity and divine nature, that things of the past have survived to this day and continue to be strong. He uses phrases such as “to our times,” “even to the present day,” “even until now.” For example, in the Theophany, in discussing Jesus’ miracles:

“Nor was it only that He impressed on the souls of those who immediately followed Him such power…but also…on those who came afterwards; and on those even to this present, and (who live) in our own times. How does this not transcend every sort of miracle? [i.e., by other alleged miracle workers]”

The final verse of the Testimonium fits into this Eusebian “Tell” like another pea in the pod.

In regard to the phrase itself, “Eis eti te nun” occurs nowhere in Josephus but is found elsewhere in Eusebius and is a common phrase in the History of the Church. Eisler, on the other hand, suggests (p.56) that phrases similar to this are common to Josephus, but he allows that the actual phrase in the Testimonium, with its “redundant accumulation of particles” is un-Josephan, something he attributes to “the habit of later scribes.” However, we should note that similar Josephan phrases he enumerates, such as “eti nun” and “kai nun eti” are not found in contexts of similar arguments and concerns to those of Eusebius. The latter seem to be the implication of the Testimonium: the tribe of the Christians persisting to this day has a positive ring, and it is really an extension of the earlier thought that those who loved Jesus stayed faithful to him after his death. Together, these ideas of implied approval and praise because something is demonstrated to ‘prove’ itself by continuing on into the present fits very well with the “Tell” which Raskin has presented as a feature of Eusebius’ expression.

Curiously, Eisler claims that the thought of not dying out could imply a negative judgment by Josephus. “The phrase ouk epelipe certainly does not imply a wish on the part of the author for their continued growth. For if we say of a party that ‘it has not died out yet,’ we imply a certain pious wish—a silent hope or, eventually, a certain apprehension that it may some time do so after all.” This is surely a strained reading of the text. Eisler does not supply any other example of such a thought by Josephus which can be seen as negative. It is especially unconvincing when it is seen to follow on the earlier thought about followers who “loved” Jesus and continued to do so. In regard to the latter, Eisler is forced to contend that Josephus may only have meant “like” or “admire” so as not to be unrealistically deferential. Once again, in the context such a reading seems strained.

In a similar vein, Eddy and Boyd (op.cit., p.194), relying on Meier, maintain that, in regard to the tribe of the Christians not having died out, “there seems to be an element of surprise in this sentence. Josephus is insinuating that, given Jesus’s ‘shameful end…one is amazed to note…that this group of postmortem lovers is still at it and has not disappeared even in our day.’ There is in this a distinctly ‘dismissive if not hostile’ tone, according to Meier.” No such insinuation, in either the English or the Greek, can be detected unless one reads such a thing into what is a very straightforward statement. As noted above in regard to Eisler, since it follows on the observation that those who had loved Jesus continued to do so—which can hardly convey a snide or derogatory implication—the final phrase, if anything, implies a sentiment in the same positive vein.

The Tribe of the Christians

This final statement contains in some ways the most interesting phrase of the entire Testimonium: the reference to “the tribe of the Christians.” In any writer dealing with Jewish history, the word “tribe” is bound to be frequent. Josephus, on the one hand, consistently uses “tribe” to refer to ethnic units, both Jewish and non-Jewish. He never uses it to refer to a religious group. Once, in Antiquities XIV, 7, 2 (14:115), he refers to the Jews as a whole as “this tribe of men,” but he is more likely to have in mind the sense of their ethnicity (which fits the context) than of their religious identity. Eusebius, on the other hand, also uses it in a majority of cases to refer to the tribes of the Jews and of non-Jewish people like the Ethiopeans and Paeonians, but he also applies it in some more imaginative ways: “the tribes of living creatures that subsist in the air” (Praeparatio Evangelica 7, 22) and “there are countless tribes and families of stars” (P.E. 7, 15).7

7 Mason (op.cit., p.232) remarks: “It is very strange that Josephus should speak of the Christians as a distinct racial group, since he has just said that Jesus was a Jew condemned by the Jewish leaders. (Notice, however, that some Christian authors of a later period came to speak of Christianity as a ‘third race.’)” That later thinking is another pointer to the thought being from Eusebius himself.

Eisler, too, notes (p.56) that “tribe” usually refers to ethnicity, but he claims that “the word phulon (is used) also in a pejorative sense, as in English we speak of the ‘tribe of politicians’ or the ‘tribe of the lawyers’.” Eisler does not provide any example of this in a Greek text, and one wonders if he has wishfully extrapolated from English usage into the Greek. I can find dictionary support for it in regard to the related word “ethnos” (nation, people), but not for phulon. From all this Eisler deduces: “The fact itself that phulon here does not designate an ethnical unit, but the ‘Christians,’ makes it clear that the author did not mean to use a term of affection.” This is anything but clear, especially in the absence of any example of a use of the term by Josephus in an evidently pejorative sense.

The whole matter is complicated by a further phenomenon. The word “tribe” in Greek enjoys two forms: hē phulē (a feminine noun) and to phulon (a neuter one). There is no hard and fast distinction between the two, and their usages tend to overlap. In New Testament writings only the former is used. In Josephus both appear, although the former is by far the more predominant. Yet to phulon is the form used in the Testimonium, which in itself might serve to argue against his authorship of at least that final line. A key question then becomes, how does this choice relate to “tribe” as used by Eusebius? There, too, we find a predominance of phulē, but in History of the Church, the word phulon appears in Bk. III, 33 twice, although both are essentially the same reference. Those two appearances are in the phrase “the tribe of the Christians.”

Improving the Testimonium

Finally, we need to consider a phrase which appears in the middle of the Testimonium. Pilate condemned Jesus “on an accusation by the principal men (prōtōn andrōn) among us.” Olson notes that this Greek term is found elsewhere in Josephus—though never with “among us”—but seemingly not in Eusebius. However, this brings us to a very telling observation. This is one of the features of Olson’s case which deserves stronger emphasis: the two Greek versions of the Testimonium presented by Eusebius, the earlier in the Demonstratio Evangelica, the later in the History of the Church (the Testimonium in the latter is the one that is invariably quoted in all discussions), differ in a few places. One of these is in regard to the phrase in question. “Principal men” appears only in the later version; in the earlier we read “by our leaders (archontōn).” What is the best explanation for this? Eusebius was hardly quoting from memory in either case; this was not sacred scripture which he might be expected to know intimately. It is often said that ancient authors relied to a great extent on memory, since it was so difficult to find passages in index-less manuscripts. But in the case of a passage of this length, memory would hardly be relied on, especially when the writer was offering a direct quote of some importance. If Eusebius did rely on a faulty memory, it is surprising he remembered so much else perfectly accurately.

If, as would be likely, he had a copy of Josephus before him, it is not feasible that he would have made such a mistake when reproducing it on one of the occasions, supposedly the first. No, the better explanation by far is that Eusebius deliberately made this change as a perceived improvement when he came to write the History of the Church, which removes the phrase from the pen of Josephus. Eusebius also made a notable change in a previous line. The “a teacher of men who revere the truth” was changed to “a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure.” The new phrases he could have taken from Josephus’ vocabulary elsewhere (“principal men” and “with pleasure”), as they appear elsewhere. And the fact that both of these changes are to be found in all the extant texts of the Testimonium in Josephus’ Antiquities indicates that both earlier and later forms come from Eusebius, since if different versions were extant in various manuscripts we might expect to find a haphazard survival of those different forms. The conclusion would be that Eusebius composed the Testimonium initially for his Demonstratio Evangelica, and later refined it for his History of the Church.

This would require, of course, that Eusebius then inserted it into his copy of the Antiquities, and from there over the centuries it found its way into all copies, as we see it today in the extant manuscripts. That Eusebius would have been able to accomplish this is no more far-fetched than scholarship’s general view that some scribe somewhere reworked an original Testimonium into the blatantly Christian version Eusebius witnessed to, and this new version eventually became universal. Indeed, Eusebius, in his position as official Church historian appointed by Constantine, assembling a host of documents and no doubt charged with ‘marketing’ his work, once finished, to the Christian world, would have been in a position far better than anyone to disseminate any doctoring and forgery he may have been guilty of. Furthermore, future quotations of the Testimonium in later Christian writings are often judged to have been taken from Eusebius’ History of the Church (more widely circulated than his Demonstratio), rather than from a text of Josephus, and by such routes too would scribes have been led (perhaps at times in all innocence) to take this Eusebian source and put it into Josephus where it was presumed to belong.

That phrase “among us” attached to “principal men” is also a peculiarity. Olson notes:

“Josephus elsewhere refers to the ‘principal men,’ but he consistently refers to the principal men ‘of Jerusalem’ or ‘of [or, belonging to] the city,’ using these phrases instead of the first person plural’.”

The phrase “among us” is quite rare in Josephus (half a dozen times), and is regularly used adverbially, as in Antiquities X, 2, 2 (10.35): “And whatsoever is done among us...” On the other hand, it is common in Eusebius, as in phrases like “elder brother among us” or “divine martyrs among us”—here used adjectivally, as in the Testimonium phrase. Here, then, we have yet another inconsistency with standard Josephan practice. Indeed, inconsistencies seem to infect virtually every line of the reconstructed Testimonium that is in favor today. The more ‘re-doctoring’ that must be devised in order to rescue an authentic Testimonium from its later Christian depredations, the more the whole exercise falls into discredit and the more modern scholars are forced to ignore the flow of the text and its ideas, which possess a greater ‘all of a piece’ impression than they would like to admit.

Frank Zindler (op.cit., p.58) is of the opinion that Eusebius probably encountered some primitive form of Testimonium already inserted in manuscripts of the Antiquities, if only because we have earlier evidence of other Christian tampering with the text of Josephus, as witnessed by Origen. But he admits that it would be impossible to tell from the text the difference between a Eusebian improvement of an older insertion, and improvements to his own initial invention ex nihilo. One could propose in favor of Zindler’s opinion the argument that to phulon for “tribe” is so markedly a distant second choice for both Josephus and Eusebius that its use could point to some unknown interpolator prior to Eusebius for whom the word was not an unusual choice.

Was Eusebius “Telling Lies”?

On the question of possible Eusebian invention of the Testimonium, we need to take a look at an ongoing debate over Eusebius’ general trustworthiness as an historian of Christianity. In Book 12 of the Praeparatio Evangelica (“Preparation for the Gospel”), the short chapter 31 is devoted to offering a working principle. To put it bluntly, Eusebius contends that it can be permissible and even necessary for the good of the faith to use fiction/deception/lies—depending on how one chooses to translate the key word “pseudos.” Here is the passage in its entirety, beginning with the chapter heading (in bold), which has been shown to be by Eusebius, not some later editor:

That it is necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a medicine for those who need such an approach:

[Here Eusebius quotes Plato’s Laws 663e, words spoken by the Athenian character:] “And even the lawmaker who is of little use, if even this is not as he considered it, and as just now the application of logic held it, if he dared lie [pseudesthai] to young men for a good reason, then can’t he lie? For falsehood [pseudos] is something even more useful than the above, and sometimes even more able to bring it about that everyone willingly keeps to all justice.” [Then, quoting words spoken in response by the character Clinias:] “Truth is beautiful, Stranger, and steadfast. But to persuade people of it is not easy.” [Followed by Eusebius’ further comments:] You would find many things of this sort being used even in the Hebrew scriptures, such as concerning God being jealous or falling asleep or getting angry or being subject to some other human passions, for the benefit of those who need such an approach. [Translation by Richard Carrier, in “The Formation of the New Testament Canon”8]

8  At: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html (published 2000). See Endnote 6.

Carrier then comments: “…So in a book where Eusebius is proving that the pagans got all their good ideas from the Jews, he lists as one of those good ideas Plato’s argument that lying, indeed telling completely false tales, for the benefit of the state is good and even necessary. Eusebius then notes quite casually how the Hebrews did this, telling lies about their God, and he even compares such lies with medicine, a healthy and even necessary thing.”

Apologetic efforts here to rescue Eusebius’ basic reliability usually focus on watering down the meaning of “pseudos” and the intent behind Eusebius’ words. But Greek lexicons of the New Testament make no bones about the usage of the word and its relatives in Christian literature: “a falsehood, a perversion of religious truth, practices of a false religion.” Bauer: “lie, falsehood, in our literature predominantly with reference to religious matters…deceptive”; as verb: “to lie, tell a falsehood, to deceive by lying”; as adjective: “false, lying.”

In classical Greek, the meaning may include “fiction” without any reprehensible intent, but even were we to give Eusebius every benefit of the ethical doubt, it does not change the fact that he is advocating the use of untruth as a device, a medicine to maintain the healthiness of faith, to cure the disease of misunderstanding and uncertainty. He appeals to Plato’s Laws as supporting this principle: lying to young men can be beneficial to keeping them on the straight and narrow. Eusebius may well not have wanted or intended to convey the stark blatancy of “lie,” but he is stating and defending his willingness to employ devices which are not factual, that present reality in ways that are not literal. He goes on to offer a parallel in the Hebrew scriptures, although the examples he offers are a poor fit to the point Plato was making, that falsehoods can keep the citizens in line and obeying the laws. Thus they are a poor fit to his own point, since portraying God in the Old Testament as possessing human traits is more a case of ‘misrepresenting’ him, presumably for the purpose of better understanding the workings of God in history. This is as far as Eusebius can go in appealing to the sacred writings, since there is no reason to think that he regards any tale of those writings as an outright falsehood or “fiction.” Even allegory is truth in another guise, as Philo presented his reading of scripture.

Roger Pearse, in an IIDB debate and in his website defense of Eusebius,9 has pointed out that the Loeb translation of Plato’s Laws employs the word “fiction” to translate pseudos in this passage, and that this is the term which should be used in regard to Eusebius’ text. Apart from the fact that classical scholars can be equally sensitive about according disreputable intent to favored classical authors as are Christian scholars to early Christian writers, use of a milder English word is beside the point and even a red herring. The concept of “fiction” need not, of course, involve the intention to deceive, although it may (“His resumé was sheer fiction!”); but as is often the case, the meaning behind the use of a word will be determined by its context. It is quite clear that in the context of Plato’s Laws and the argument for justification the Athenian is indulging in, such an intent to deceive is there, otherwise there would be no concern over having a justification for it.

9 Online at: http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/eusebius/eusebius_the_liar.htm

Neither is Plato or Eusebius advocating a simple parable or allegory to embody what they want to get across, a substitute for a more direct explanation. (Explanations of parables and allegories are generally supplied, or may be considered obvious to the perceptive reader.) Rather, what they are doing is claiming legitimacy for pulling the wool over people’s eyes to achieve a desired effect on behavior and belief. Both are suggesting that such people can be misled into thinking that untruths are in fact true.

    In any case, intent or degree of blatancy is not the issue. The question is: can we suspect Eusebius of ‘pious frauds’ in his presentation of Christian history and the sources he claims to appeal to? Does he wishfully invent such things as early lists of bishops, as some scholars have suspected? If he feels it useful that a Jewish historian said things in support of arguments he is anxious to make in the service of the faith, was he capable of constructing such fictions himself? Considering early Christianity’s known history of forgery, of pseudonymous letters that misrepresent themselves, of interpolations and the doctoring of documents, including canonical ones, the wholesale invention of fraudulent Acts of this and that apostle, letters between Paul and Seneca, missives to the emperor on the part of Pilate recounting the career and trial of Jesus, and so on in vast measure, there is certainly no impediment to allowing such indulgences to Eusebius in his construction of the history of his religion from scattered and incomplete sources. Second only to the canonical Acts of the Apostles, Eusebius’ History is crucial for understanding the early history of the Church. As the former is quite clearly an idealization and in great measure fictional, there is no compelling reason to regard the latter as any more reliable.10 

10 Alvar Ellegard (Jesus—One Hundred Years Before Christ, p.38) has this to say on the matter: “[W]e should keep in mind that Eusebius writes his history with a definite purpose in mind: to show the unity and continuity of the Church from the earliest apostles, the disciples of Christ, onwards and, in particular, that the bishops of the Church succeeded each other in a straight line from the first apostles. Thus Eusebius gives us bishop lists for the great sees of Rome, Corinth, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. But, as he provides no contemporary evidence, the lists are suspect, and it may well be that they are purposely arranged (not to say invented) in order to support his own preconceived ideas. The general reliability of Eusebius concerning the early history of the church must be characterized as low: he is far too prone to resort to hearsay and downright fabrications, if it suits his purpose. [Robert M.] Grant (Eusebius as Church Historian, p.66) illustrates Eusebius’ way of subordinating his narrative to his theological concerns. Speaking about Eusebius’ treatment of Tertullian he writes: ‘Where the evidence did not go far enough, Eusebius amplified it. Where it went too far, he suppressed it.’ Grant finds that Eusebius does not refer to any sources (outside the NT) older than the middle of the second century AD. I would add that Eusebius’ assertion that Mark was the first bishop of Alexandria lacks all probability.”
     It has been suggested that Eusebius derived his bishop lists from Hegesippus, but usually Eusebius identifies an earlier Christian source for information, often Hegesippus himself, and in this case he does not.

Correspondence with Jesus

Barely a stone’s throw from his introduction of the Testimonium in Book I, chapter 11 of the History of the Church, Eusebius offers the tale of King Abgar of Edessa who corresponded with Jesus himself (ch. 13). The king asked Jesus, about whose healing miracles he had heard even on the upper Euphrates in northern Syria, to come and heal his own affliction, while Jesus responded that he must complete his mission and return to Heaven and so cannot come himself but will send an apostle in his place. Amazingly, Eusebius produces that written exchange, which he claims to have retrieved from the archives at Edessa and translated himself from the Syriac. It is not entirely clear whether he is claiming that it was the actual originals he saw and that Jesus wrote (or dictated) in Syriac, but this seems to be the implication. Here is the text of that exchange [note 11]: 

From G. A. Williamson’s translation of Eusebius: History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (p.66-67):

COPY OF A LETTER WRITTEN BY ABGAR THE TOPARCH TO JESUS AND SENT TO HIM AT JERUSALEM BY THE COURIER ANANIAS:

Abgar Uchama the Toparch [A.D. 13-50] to Jesus, who has appeared as a gracious saviour in the region of Jerusalem—greeting. I have heard about you and about the cures you perform without drugs or herbs. If report is true, you make the blind see again and the lame walk about; you cleanse lepers, expel unclean spirits and demons, cure those suffering from chronic and painful diseases, and raise the dead. When I heard all this about you, I concluded that one of two things must be true—either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things, or you are God’s Son doing them. Accordingly I am writing to beg you to come to me, whatever the inconvenience, and cure the disorder from which I suffer. I may add that I understand the Jews are treating you with contempt and desire to injure you: my city is very small, but highly esteemed, adequate for both of us.

JESUS REPLY TO THE TOPARCH ABGAR BY THE COURIER ANANIAS

Happy are you who believed in me without having seen me! For it is written of me that those who have seen me will not believe in me, and that those who have not seen will believe and live. As to your request that I should come to you, I must complete all that I was sent to do here, and on completing it must at once be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up I will send you one of my disciples to cure your disorder and bring life to you and those with you.

Eusebius then quotes an ‘attached report’ to the letters outlining how Thaddeus came from Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection and cured not only Abgar but half the population in Edessa of their ailments. The naivete of this whole passage about Abgar is astonishing, be it Eusebius’ invention or some previous Christian’s, and it should be a stark pointer to the irrational mindset and utter unreliability of anything in the early Christian record. In Thaddeus’ mouth is placed a sermon which is a summation of Jesus’ work that reads like an expanded Apostles’ Creed. It contains the phrase “was crucified and descended into Hades.” G. A. Williamson makes note of it this way, illustrating that even in our modern era, that naivete still survives: “It is worthy of note that this phrase should occur in an early Syriac document. The doctrine can be found in a number of N.T. passages, but nowhere in these words, which appear nowhere else at such an early date.” Without committing himself to actual authenticity for this three-part conjuring trick of Eusebius (though he does not explicitly reject it), Williamson is accepting that this Syriac ‘attachment’ to the letters actually existed well before Eusebius. Even for 1965, Williamson’s tone in his translation of the History of the Church, probably the best known and most used one, is queasily uncritical, defensive of the most naïve and dubious Christian traditions. (In his footnotes, he consistently refers to Jesus as “our Lord.”)

There is not the remotest chance, of course, that these letters are authentic, but did Eusebius himself author them, or was he taken in by some earlier forgeries that actually resided in Edessa? If the latter, it would speak to an almost unprecedented gullibility even for ancient Christians. (Walter Bauer is of the opinion that the forgery was perpetrated in Edessa and foisted on Eusebius as he was collecting material for his Church History.) However, it is the case that no separate witness to these letters is to be found in Christian writers preceding Eusebius, such as Justin, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria or Origen. No one ever took notice of, or mentioned rumors about, an actual letter by Jesus that could be examined in an accessible Syrian city. Nor did Eusebius’ report of these astonishing documents lead any subsequent Christian commentator to investigate them for himself, although legends surrounding them did develop, especially in Edessa. If Eusebius is claiming that he physically took the letters from Edessa, it is quite incredible that they did not physically appear later, even to be preserved in the Vatican archives. If they existed anywhere in the early 4th century, when a new interest in relics of Jesus exploded into Christian consciousness, a letter from Jesus, even if not penned by his own hand, would undoubtedly have been caught up in the mania and carefully preserved as a holy relic. Instead, Augustine and Jerome declared that Jesus left nothing in writing, and in the 6th century a Decretum declared the Abgar correspondence apocryphal.

Perhaps the most compelling conclusion is that Eusebius simply fabricated these letters himself. And if such a shameless forgery could be perpetrated without compunction by Christianity’s new official historian, we can hardly think that he would have lost any sleep over attributing to Josephus a simple witness to Jesus—even as the Messiah.

Eusebius and John the Baptist

Just before quoting the Testimonium, Eusebius has quoted the passage from Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2 (18.116f) about John the Baptist as found in all extant manuscripts, although his link between the passages—“After giving this account of John, in the same part of the work he goes on to speak as follows of our Savior”—seems to suggest that the Baptist passage came first in his copy of the Antiquities, rather than a couple of chapters later than the Testimonium as it stands now. While this could be simple sloppiness on Eusebius’ part, did one or possibly both of these passages suffer insertion in different places, before the permanent extant locations were finalized? (Perhaps Eusebius had not yet decided where to place his Testimonium.) Does Eusebius’ presentation suggest that even the passage on the Baptist was a Christian interpolation?12

12 This is a thorny question. Eddy and Boyd make the remark (op.cit., p.195-6) that “If the whole of the Testimonium was the work of a Christian interpolator, it seems he would have followed the Gospel pattern and placed it after the discussion on John the Baptist, whom all Christians regarded as a forerunner of Jesus.” And yet that is precisely, as we have seen, what Eusebius implies, that the passage about Jesus came after the one about John, for in History of Church (I, 11), Eusebius has clearly said: “After giving this account of John, in the same part of his work he goes on to speak as follows of our Saviour…”  On the other hand, in the Demonstratio Evangelica, which is judged by scholars to be the earlier written work, Eusebius, in introducing the Testimonium (III, 5), says he will quote Josephus, “who in the eighteenth chapter [i.e., book] of The Archaeology of the Jews, in his record of the times of Pilate, mentions our Saviour in these words…” This would seem to place the Testimonium in its extant position, earlier than the extant position of the passage on the Baptist. Does this speak to a fluidity of location for both of these passages in the time of Eusebius? There is no denying that a Christian interpolator of the Testimonium had a difficult decision to make. If the passage on John was authentic, he could place it in a position following John. On the other hand, because of the role of Pilate which the interpolator was including in his paragraph on Jesus, it would have seemed to belong in the earlier chapter 3, along with the Pilate episodes. If both of Eusebius’ remarks are taken at face value, they are contradictory, unless we allow for some juggling of the Baptist passage. This would be required (thus increasing its likelihood of interpolation) if we presume that the Demonstratio is the earlier work, since it would seem that the Testimonium occupied its present position from the time Eusebius first refers to (or invented) it.

Further light is thrown on such questions, and the issue of Eusebius’ honesty, by what he says immediately following his two quotations from Josephus on John and Jesus:

“When a historian sprung from the Hebrews themselves has furnished in his own writing an almost contemporary record of John the Baptist and our Savior too, what excuse is there left for not condemning the shameless dishonesty of those who forged the Memoranda blackening them both? And there we will leave the matter.” [H.E. I, 11]

Eusebius thus admits that one of his purposes—if not the main one—is to counter pagan calumny. The Memoranda, published by the emperor Maximinus in 311, was alleged by the Romans to be the original and authentic “Acts of Pilate” in which the governor of Judea had reported to Tiberius on his trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Eusebius’ remarks indicate that in this Memoranda Pilate mentioned both Jesus and John, disparaging them both. Such a document, accused by the Christians of being a forgery, does not survive, of course, having been inimical to their religion. (Ironically, Christians themselves had previously forged such reports, making Pilate a Christian sympathizer and praising Jesus as a good and just man capable of performing actual miracles; perhaps the Romans were just giving tit for tat.) Conveniently, the Testimonium has served Eusebius’ need to counter and discredit this hostile publication “blackening” Jesus and John. What better situation could exist to justify Eusebius’ principle of falsifying something in the interests of defending the faith against malicious and dishonest criticism?

Despite the discussion above (Note 12), the Josephan passage on John the Baptist cannot be automatically labeled a Christian insertion. One indication of authenticity for the Baptist passage is that it is hard to conceive of a Christian interpolator failing to make a link between John and Jesus, especially on the matter of baptism which the Josephan passage discusses in regard to John. Moreover, the description of John’s type of baptism is at odds with Christian interpretation of the ritual. The passage contains no obvious Christian language. (If it was genuine, this would have provided further incentive to fabricate one on Jesus to complement it, whether by Eusebius or someone previous.)13

13 On the other hand, Frank Zindler (op.cit., p.95-99) has made a fair case that the passage is an interpolation. Without it, the flanking paragraphs follow one upon the other even more cleanly and obviously than do the flanking paragraphs of the Testimonium. As well, a statement in a preceding paragraph contradicts one in the Baptist passage: Josephus has earlier said that the castle of Macherus was under the control of Aretas, Herod’s enemy, whereas he is now saying that Herod sent John there to be imprisoned and executed, indicating that it was in Herod’s possession. Like the Testimonium missing from Jewish War, so is any reference to the Baptist in that earlier work when Josephus discusses Herod and his downfall. Also like the Testimonium, a reference to the Baptist passage is not found in the Greek table of contents for Book 18, but was inserted in the contents for the Latin version. As for why the Baptist passage, unlike the Testimonium, contains no clearly Christian elements, Zindler suggests that it could have been inserted by a Baptist follower, that “many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day) and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to be that of Josephus” (p.97). This, of course, would rule out Eusebius as the interpolator.
     It could be further observed that Josephus seems concerned to present a careful analysis of John’s preaching and baptism—in far greater detail and sophistication than the Testimonium picture of Jesus. Since John died before Josephus was born, and since we are aware of no particular source from which Josephus could have drawn that picture (it does not come across like oral tradition, and neither Q nor the Gospels present John in that manner), one wonders at the care and knowledge that was brought to it. Is this another indicator that the passage is an interpolation by a member of a Baptist movement which continued after John’s death?
     Steve Mason’s observations (op.cit., p.216-17) further cloud the picture. He notes that the Baptist was arrested by Herod basically on the grounds that he was a popular agitator. Josephus does not mention Herod’s unlawful marriage to his sister-in-law as a specific reason for Herod’s antagonism as the Gospels do, but simply says that Herod’s alarm over John’s popularity and outspokenness, the possibility that he could engineer an uprising of the people, led the tetrarch to eliminate John in a pre-emptive strike. Mason asks, however, why that treatment of John did not mark him out for Josephus as a dangerous popular leader, the very category of men whom the historian had no sympathy for. And yet the passage speaks only favorably of John, a good and righteous leader. All of this, taken with Eusebius’ remarks about the relative positioning of the John and Jesus passages in the text, makes it difficult to come to any clear decision about the authenticity of Josephus on John the Baptist.

     (Christians should be anxious to have the passage on John judged an ill-considered interpolation, since the account, located later than the paragraph on Jesus, is placed amid events of a period which lies too late (c34-37) to be able to include the standard dating range for the ministry and death of Jesus. See Note 89 in The Jesus Puzzle.)

In sum, should we call Eusebius a “liar” or only a “fictionalizer”? Fictional works, however, by nature alert the reader. Historians often caution that their works will involve their own paraphrases and analyses of the evidence, but I know of none who advocate inventing evidence or knowingly offering false conclusions in order to make it easier for the reader’s understanding. In a telling comment, Zindler has this to say (op.cit. p.34):

“Lest it be thought that this exposé of mendacity amongst the Church Fathers be a libel concocted by modern skeptics, no less a personage than Cardinal John Henry Newman [1801-1890], in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, confirmed the utility of prevarication and deception in the service of religion: ‘The Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie….Now, as to the ‘just cause,’… the Greek Fathers make them such as these—self-defense, charity, zeal for God’s honour, and the like.”

Semantic differences between “lies” and “fictions” are hardly relevant here. Both amount to pious untruths, and neither should be acceptable today—and in fact are not. In a footnote, Zindler tells us that he could locate this quote only in a 19th century publication of Newman: “The quotation is from the appendix, note G. Not surprisingly, this note seems not to have been reprinted in any editions of the Apologia produced during the last half of the twentieth century.”14

14 On such accounts does Zindler justify (p.33) his “working hypothesis when examining the work of Eusebius and many other Church Fathers: Whenever one encounters material that is suspect on historical, philological, scientific, or other grounds, the default interpretation should be that fraud is involved. As in the Code Napoléon, the author is to be considered guilty until proven innocent. This rather un-American rule of thumb is necessitated by the pandemic of priestly pettifoggery which has infected the Christian churches since earliest times and has been transmitted in one mutant form or another right up to the present. (The argumentational techniques and ‘evidences’ created by so-called scientific creationists and Intelligent Design theorists leap easily to mind as modern examples of this thimblerig tradition.)” To this one might add the censorings which ecclesiastical authorities in the 19th century inflicted on reports sent back to Britain from the eastern colonies about local religious similarities to the myth of Jesus.

 Could Josephus have written the “authentic” Testimonium?

In addition to the silence in Christian commentators before the 4th century, there are other broad considerations which discredit the idea that Josephus could have penned even the reduced Testimonium Flavianum advocated by modern scholars.

Quite apart from an analysis of the individual words and phrases, the entire tenor of the modern ‘authentic’ Testimonium does not ring true for Josephus. In the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say. Indeed, he condemns the whole movement of popular agitators and rebels as the bane of the period. It led to the destruction of the city, of the Temple itself, of the Jewish state. And yet the ‘recovered’ Testimonium would require us to believe that he made some kind of exception for Jesus.

On what basis would he do so? If he had possessed an intimate knowledge of Jesus, leading to some favorable estimation of the man that was markedly different from his usual attitude toward such figures, we would expect much more than the cursory account in Antiquities 18. The latter, in fact, amounts to little more than a bare summation of basic Gospel elements. Would Jewish sources have provided a favorable account of Jesus’ teachings or activities? Hardly, and certainly not by the 90s, when Jewish leaders were laying anathemas on the Christians.  Some raise the possibility that Josephus’ information came from “official Roman records,” but such a record would have been even less likely to present Jesus in a positive fashion.

Why, then, would Josephus have made an exception for Jesus? Did he have reports of Jesus’ teachings, all of which he perceived as laudable? That is difficult to envision. By the late first century, if we can judge by the Gospels and even scholarly reconstructions of Q, any commendable teachings of Jesus would have been inextricably mixed with all sorts of inflammatory and subversive pronouncements and prophecies of a revolutionary and apocalyptic nature—whether authentic to Jesus or not. The latter would have been an expression of the very thing Josephus hated and condemned in all the other popular agitators of the period. It would be difficult to postulate a situation in which his knowledge of Jesus the “teacher” could have been so selective as to screen out the objectionable elements that would have been attached to him as well, and thus we have been justified in concluding that it is impossible that Josephus could have referred to Jesus as “a wise man,” or spoken of him in any positive or even neutral way.

In this light, we can make some further observations about the feasibility of authenticity for elements of the Testimonium. The phrase “(he was) a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure” both Meier (A Marginal Jew, p.61) and Crossan (The Historical Jesus, p.373) regard as authentic, yet how could Josephus refer to a man to whom all the various Christian expressions and expectations would have been attributed—including the downfall of the present world—as a “teacher of the truth”?

The same objection applies to the phrase “wonderful works”—and this includes the suggested possible alternative translation of “unusual” or “startling works.” Such a phrase, in Josephus’ mind, would have placed Jesus into the same class as those popular agitators like Theudas the magician who promised to divide the river Jordan so that his followers could cross over it (Ant. XX, 5, 1 / 97-8), or the unnamed Egyptian who claimed his command would knock down the walls of Jerusalem (Ant. XX, 8, 6 / 169f; War II, 13, 5 / 261f). Would Christian or any other reports filter out the healings (which Josephus could perhaps have accepted as believable or laudatory) from Jesus’ reputed miracles over nature, or his Gospel prophecy that the walls of the Temple would tumble? In the same passage with Theudas, he speaks generally of “imposters and deceivers (who) called upon the mob to follow them into the desert, for they said that they would show them unmistakable marvels and signs that would be wrought in harmony with God’s design.” Josephus would hardly make any niceties of distinction between these charlatans and Jesus.15

15  Nor would the Romans. Jesus as the Gospels portray him, a popular agitator attracting vast crowds and working them up with alleged miracles, would have gained the immediate attention of the Roman authorities and alarmed them, leading to Jesus’ arrest and probable elimination. Palestine at that time was a land in ferment, and we know from Josephus that quick action was taken against popular agitators such as those just outlined, usually involving their summary execution and the slaughter of those who followed them. It would not have needed the Jewish scribes and Pharisees to plot against him and seek his death. The Romans would have seized and dispatched him themselves.
     It is often claimed that Jesus’ teachings would not have been cause for such a reaction, as they were of an admirable and peaceful ethical nature. But this view is naïve. Anyone who preached to the downtrodden masses that they were going to inherit the earth upon the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom would have been seen as advocating and promising the overthrow of present society. The encouragement of belief, especially through alleged miracles, that Rome was about to be ousted by divine forces was precisely what the authorities were forced to deal with and suppress through most of the first century. Such beliefs culminated in the upheaval of the Jewish War. The Roman occupation would hardly have troubled to look into the niceties of Jesus’ preaching, and Jesus wouldn’t have survived a week. [From Challenging the Verdict, p.112-113] 

The very presence of that phrase “wonderful works” would indicate that some of Josephus’ report would have been based on traditions about miracle-working by Jesus. This rules out a ‘private pipeline’ to some authentic picture of an enlightened sage, which some scholars have suggested. Instead, it opens the door to the likelihood of a wide range of reports about dramatic and even revolutionary acts by Jesus, such as we find in both Q and the Gospels: working miracles in front of large crowds, challenging and condemning the religious authorities, causing an uproar in the Temple. (If the story of the cleansing of the Temple were factual in any degree resembling the Gospels, such an incident would hardly have escaped Josephus knowledge, nor his reporting.) Factual or not, if such traditions were circulating about Jesus, this from Josephus’ point of view would have brought him into association with the Zealotic rebels, bandits and general crazies who had infested the land of Israel prior to the great War and were most responsible for its devastating ruin.  Could the historian have presented this Jesus in even a “neutral” way, could he have regarded him in any other light than just another detestable fanatic?

To judge by the Christians’ own record in the Gospels and even some of the epistles, “the tribe of the Christians” toward the end of the first century was still a strongly apocalyptic one, expecting the overthrow of the empire and established authority, along with the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom. What would have led Josephus to divorce this prevailing Christian outlook—for which he would have felt nothing but revulsion—from his judgment of the movement’s founder?

The report in Tacitus (if genuine), the persecution witnessed in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, the birkat ha-minim (curse on the heretics) of the Jewish synagogues after Jamnia, all testify to the hostility and vilification which Christian sects endured at this time. Yet an acceptance of the reduced Testimonium as authentic assumes that Josephus, alone of all our non-Christian witnesses, took an opposite stance. It assumes that when all about him were expressing condemnation, he could imply approval and even a touch of admiration for Jesus and the Christian tribe which “had come to love him and did not forsake him.” For this is the overriding sentiment that emerges from the reduced Testimonium.

The final point to be stressed in this connection is that Josephus was writing under Flavian sponsorship. His readers were primarily Roman, some Jewish. What reason would he have had for being, in Meier’s phrase, “purposely ambiguous”? He had nothing to fear from Christians, and no reason to consider their sensibilities. Regardless of what he may have thought about the character of Pilate, if Pilate had executed Jesus, then there had to have been—in official Roman and Flavian eyes—a justification for doing so. Crucifixion was a punishment for rebels, and Jesus’ crucifixion would have been seen as part of Rome’s ongoing campaign to deal with the problems of a troubled time in a troubled province.

Yet how, in the reconstructed Testimonium, does Josephus deal with the event itself? The words and their context give the impression that the crucifixion was due to “an accusation made by men of the highest standing among us,” that this was the execution of a wise and loved man, a teacher of truth who was obviously innocent. Nothing could better reflect the Gospel image. As well, that would mean that Pilate had acted improperly, or that he had been misled or coerced by others. There could be no basis on which Josephus would be led to interpret the event this way, much less put it in writing for a Roman audience. There would have been no channel through which such a judgment would come to him that he would have accepted. And no way he could have avoided explaining himself if he did.

In his Life (65 / 363), Josephus declares that the emperor Titus himself “affixed his own signature to them [copies of the original Greek edition of the Jewish War] and gave orders for their publication.” Josephus wrote at the behest of his Flavian patrons. Their motives were part of his motives. While he also had Jewish interests, the official Roman outlook was largely his own outlook as well. The Testimonium Flavianum, in any of its resurrected versions, makes no sense within such a Josephan world picture.

The Arabic Version

A version of the Testimonium appears in a 10th century history of the world by Agapius, the Melchite Christian bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. He wrote in Arabic, but his discussion of Josephus is judged to have come from a Syriac source, itself derived from a Greek one, making it at least third-hand. Israeli historian Schlomo Pines in 1971 published a study of Agapius’ work and provided a translation of the passage corresponding to the Testimonium, as follows:

“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 after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.16

16 Schlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications; see p.8-11.

Pines and others have suggested that this version contains elements which go back to Josephus. As with many other “free paraphrase” works and the assortment of Testimonium versions that have come down to us through tortuous routes, there is little reason to share their confidence. It is true that Agapius’ rendition is toned down from that of our extant version first found in Eusebius. It lacks “if he should be called a man,” reference to the “wonderful works” and those “who accept the truth with pleasure, for all of which it substitutes “he was a good man and virtuous.” It does not mention any role for the Jewish “principal men” in the execution of Jesus, and the final line about “the tribe of the Christians” still going strong is missing. Agapius qualifies the appearing alive after three days with “they (the disciples) reported that…” Thus far, it is said, we have nothing that could not be judged as a natural product of Josephus, although this version differs in many details from the accepted reconstruction of most modern scholarship.

Again, however, we have to ask how such an original could have safely found its way through the eight-centuries route to Agapius when much of what it contains and what it lacks surfaces nowhere else. It is far more likely that we have yet another free paraphrase (or perhaps successive stages of such a thing), like those we see in different forms in other writings. This is especially likely since we can see other elements, or missing elements, of the passage as less attributable to Josephus. Zindler (op. cit., p.55) asks why Josephus would not have given some indication as to why this wise and good man was executed, or why we should consider the dropping of the role of the “principal men” found in the generally accepted reconstructed Testimonium as reflective of a different and authentic original. Similarly, why would the absence of the reference to the tribe of the Christians be reflective of authenticity? If such deletions are not a reflection of such, then we have indications of free paraphrase in the form of deletions tainting the Agapius text, which does not bode well for the rest of it.

G. A. Wells notes (The Jesus Myth, p.216):

“Bammel thinks that Agapius’ version may have originated in an Islamic environment, as it states that ‘Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die,’ the last three of these words being unrepresented in the Greek text. The Koran denies that Jesus was put to death; hence the contrary assertion became of vital importance to Christians in Islamic times.”

Can we be sure, then, that nothing else in the Agapius version was influenced by Islamic or local outlooks, in keeping with the principle active in all free paraphrases to rework according to contemporary conditions, ideology and style?

Not surprisingly, the line most focused on in the Arabic version is “he was perhaps the Messiah.” This could no more be authentic to Josephus than the line in the Eusebius version: “He was the Messiah,” since Josephus would have had no reason to suggest the possibility any more than the certainty. Taken with the deletions in the opening lines and the cautious “they reported that” in reference to the resurrection, we see obvious signs of a watering down of earlier more committed statements such as we find in the extant Testimonium. That watering down could conceivably be the work of Agapius. Remember that Agapius is thought to draw on a Syriac predecessor, and yet two centuries after Agapius a version of the Testimonium appears in Syriac in the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian. That version still contains most of the elements familiar from the standard text which the earlier Agapius lacked, that Jesus was “more than a man, a worker of glorious deeds and a teacher of truth,” along with a committed “he appeared to them after three days,” and the remark that the Christian movement still survives. (Michael, however, hedges as Agapius does on the matter of Jesus’ identity: “He was thought to be the Messiah.”) It would seem, then, that Syriac renditions of Josephus had their own range of content, and that the Agapius version actually postdates the one found later in Michael. Eddy and Boyd (op.cit., p.194) maintain that “the Arabic text helps confirm the reconstructed version of the Testimonium,” since it does not contain two of the most troublesome passages, and a third has a non-committal form. But Agapius as a free paraphrase is a much preferable explanation, especially as Michael the Syrian’s version shows that the Syriac tradition is rooted in the Eusebius text, not in some prior more authentic edition of Josephus. Their confident declaration, quoting J. H. Charlesworth, that “We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus in Antiquities 18.63-64,” must be set aside as wishful thinking.

Pines (op.cit., p.77-79) observes that both the Agapius and Michael the Syrian copies of their respective Josephus sources seem to have the title “On the Governance of the Jews.” Such an alternative title for the Antiquities of the Jews is not to be found anywhere else, indicating the possibility of some unknown manuscript line which has adapted Josephus’ original work under a different title. This would be yet another indicator of the multifarious liberties taken with Josephus’ work throughout the centuries. The passage in Agapius is immediately preceded by a discussion of traditions about Jesus’ crucifixion, with accompanying comments about its attendant astronomical marvels outstripping those of the Gospels, and a reference to letters sent by Pilate to Tiberius in which those marvels are explained as the heavenly reaction to the crucifixion. Here is a prime example of the imaginative and creative forces at work in and behind the writings of such authors who make use of Josephus, and the rashness of thinking that their texts can provide any reliable evidence for an authentic original.

Marian Hillar17 points out that “Jewish War was translated into Syriac by the eighth century, but there is no indication of a Syriac translation of the Antiquities.” Thus Agapius and Michael the Syrian are likely to have been using not Syriac translations of the original Josephus work as a whole (where they might have found some version of the Testimonium), but instead Syriac adaptations of the Testimonium itself which could well (as Pines suggests) have been derived from Eusebius’ presentation of the passage in History of the Church. The chain of transmission thus grows ever longer and more uncertain, with ever more opportunity to effect ‘free’ changes. Ultimately, of course, we cannot trace the chain back beyond Eusebius.

17 “Flavius Josephus and His Testimony Concerning the Historical Jesus” by Marian Hillar, Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies, at: http://www.socinian.org/files/TestimoniumFlavianum.pdf

Feldman (op.cit., p.58) also styles the Arabic version a free paraphrase based on Eusebius, suggesting, as noted earlier, that Agapius watered down the Messiah line out of a concern (rare but laudable) for credibility as to what the Jewish historian could reasonably have written. It would seem from the vast and diverse record of the Testimonium circus over the centuries that “free paraphrase” became a “free-for-all.” The modern scholarly enterprise to offer reconstructions of a Josephan original has simply become part of a continuing Big Top spectacle. This is perhaps nowhere so evident as in regard to the “Slavonic Josephus” texts, with the eccentric early 20th century scholar Robert Eisler as Ringmaster.

But first, a general survey of the subject.

The Slavonic Josephus

Sometime around the 13th century a Greek text of Josephus’ Jewish War was translated into the Old Russian language, incorporating many modifications, deletions and additions. Since its ‘rediscovery’ in the late 19th century, scholars have analyzed much of those changes as products of the translator in keeping with the interests of the current Slavic Orthodox Church and early Russian politics. But among the additions are eight passages relating to Jesus and John the Baptist which are judged to have been, not the translator’s work, but present in some Greek source or sources which the Slavonic author used, whether of Josephus or others. Nothing like them exists in any extant Greek manuscript of Josephus. The insertion corresponding to the Testimonium (#4) is located at precisely the point in Jewish War (II, 9 / 169f) where Josephus discusses the same events concerning Pilate that he was later to recount in Antiquities 18 where the Testimonium is found. No such passage or, as we have seen, anything resembling a version of the Testimonium or its content, is to be found at that point in any surviving manuscript of Jewish War. Does the Slavonic Josephus, then, give evidence that Christian scribes did in fact interpolate the Testimonium or something like it into the Jewish War passage on Pilate where they found it curiously missing?

Possibly so, although the nature and tone of these eight passages is unlike any other Christian interpolations. Johannes Frey in 1908, shortly after they were published in German by Alexander Berendts, decided that they could not be a Christian product but were more likely that of a sympathetic Jew. The first passage is about John the Baptist, preaching and in conflict with the Jewish authorities, but no link is made between him and Jesus, nor is there any echo of the passage about the Baptist we find in the Antiquities. The fourth passage, on Jesus, could be a very free expansion of some form of Testimonium—it opens quite similarly—supplemented by a knowledge of Gospel basics; but there is no mention of the resurrection, although that appears in a later passage, with references to the torn Temple curtain, the empty tomb, and the guards placed around the grave. In none of it is Jesus referred to as the Messiah, possibly or actually.

Furthermore, there is a curious noncommittal attitude throughout, exemplified by this in the seventh passage:

“And it was said that after he was put to death, yea after burial in the grave, he was not found. Some then assert that he is risen; but others, that he has been stolen by his friends. I, however, do not know which speak more correctly. For a dead man cannot rise of himself—though possibly with the help of another righteous man; unless he will be an angel or another of the heavenly authorities, or God himself appears as a man and accomplishes what he will…”

Here the writer speaks in the first person, whether the Slavonic historian or his source. One can see how the overall tone of these insertions could be doubted as Christian. A general grounding in the Gospels seems evident, yet there is also ignorance of some Gospel features, and perplexingly, the crucifixion itself is assigned to the Jews with Pilate’s permission, a responsibility which bears some similarity to the Talmudic traditions which invariably present the Jews as carrying out Jesus’ execution with no involvement by the Romans. If the formulator of these passages was a fairly knowledgeable and friendly Jew, the motive for his work and what readership it was intended to serve nevertheless remains murky.

Whatever the answer to all these conundrums, we have here yet another example of the broad and imaginative industry devoted over the centuries to wedding Josephus to Christian tradition. Perhaps because of the sprawling, hodge-podge nature of the ‘Christian’ interpolations into Josephus represented by these passages in the Slavonic text, modern scholars have made little effort to use that text to help formulate their reconstructed Testimonium and Josephus’ supposed picture of Jesus.

With one notable exception.

 Excursus: A Physical Portrait of Jesus

The theories of Robert Eisler would not require attention here were it not for the fact that they have given rise to a phenomenon which still enjoys a degree of popular circulation on today’s Internet. To understand how Eisler’s portrait of Jesus was arrived at, we need to take a closer look at his most famous book, published in 1929 (English translation 1931), The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist: According to Flavius Josephus’ Recently Rediscovered ‘Capture of Jerusalem’. In it, Eisler claims to provide a ‘recovered’ description of Jesus by Josephus from his (now lost) original version of Jewish War, derived, he says, “directly from the official report of Pilate, the governor, to the Emperor Tiberius,” which he believes Josephus had access to. If that were the case, Eisler would have accomplished quite a feat, a revelation that would have swept the Christian world, both lay and scholarly, since it was first brought to light in 1929. But is it the case?

First, we can acknowledge that Robert Eisler was a profoundly erudite scholar, capable of astonishing detective work. He seems to have studied minutely the many versions of Josephus’ works found in many languages, with their countless variants and interpolations. He was a master of reconstruction, drawing support from a careful analysis of the entire Josephus industry over a dozen centuries. His overall judgment, however, was governed by a principle which he felt was logically flawless: Josephus would not have ignored Jesus, therefore he must have said something about him. The alternative, that he did not, would open the door to the mythicists’ claim that Jesus never lived, and this Eisler refused to countenance. He summed up this view on p.68:

“So far [speaking of his various examples of Christian censorship], let us repeat, these conjectures would seem nothing but a very bold hypothesis: all the same, they would seem infinitely more plausible, even without further support, than the extremely questionable hypothesis of the non-historicity of Jesus, or the little more probable assumption of the essential insignificance of the Gospel events, or Josephus’ unknown private reasons which are held responsible for his passing over in silence what he knew about Jesus, whilst he does not appear to impose upon himself the slightest reserve when he comes to speak of the other messiahs of that troublesome period.”

Thus, if a given passage, or lack of one, was unacceptable as reflecting the genuine Josephus, Eisler believed it should be possible to reconstruct what he could have, or might have, or probably did say, drawing on the wealth of observations at his disposal to justify such reconstructions.

Early in the book, before addressing the Slavonic texts, Eisler dissects the Testimonium, analyzing each word and phrase. We have looked at some of these details in an earlier section. In many cases he suggests an alternate lost reading, usually carefully and cleverly argued, although he admits that his reconstructions have a “purely hypothetical character” (p.57). The upshot of his reconstruction of the Testimonium is that, in conformity with his logical principle, he is postulating a passage which was entirely hostile toward Jesus and the Christian movement, a denial of Christian claims. (One should note that this reconstruction of the passage in the Antiquities owes little or nothing to the Slavonic Josephus derived from Jewish War, whose eight interpolations bear little relationship to the contents of any version of the Testimonium in the Antiquities. Eisler's reconstructed description of Jesus is assigned to an early Jewish War [Halosis] alleged to be the source of the Slavonic Josephus.)

He also pulls no punches on the matter of Christian tampering with pagan writings, the excision of passages unfavorable to Jesus and Christianity, the erasing and blotting out which can be seen in some surviving manuscripts, and “the almost complete disappearance of anti-Christian books” (p.12). He suggests (p.13) that “the loss of all official documents referring to the trial and passion of Jesus” is explainable by the heavy Christian censorship of all things critical of Jesus and Christianity, presumably exercised after Constantine. He tends to see this censorship lurking behind every perplexing silence in the non-Christian record; he calls this his “working hypothesis” (p.66), a hypothesis he extends to “the strange silence of Tacitus on the troubles happening in Judaea in the reign of Tiberius,” referring to Tacitus’ silence on Jesus in his Histories. However, he does not note that the same censorship apparently overlooked the extremely hostile and insulting passage in Tacitus’ Annals, which is another argument for the latter’s non-authenticity.

Further to this, Eisler makes the intriguing observation that Josephus never mentions in any of his works the great fire of Rome in 64 CE, much less Nero’s subsequent punishment of the Christians as those responsible for it. But rather than question the passage in Tacitus’ Annals on that account, he suggests as “the simplest explanation” (p.65)—and in keeping with his working hypothesis—that Josephus did indeed devote space to the event, but included derogatory remarks against the Christians, and that Christian censors subsequently excised the whole episode. This seems very unlikely, even if it were feasible, for there would have been no reason to cut all mention of the fire itself. Mention even of the Neronian persecution would, moreover, have been extremely attractive to such writers as Tertullian and Origen, and other apologists decrying pagan persecution, all of whom would hardly have ignored such a report by Josephus, even if it contained comments hostile to the faith. In any case, censorship should have taken the form of amending the text, not excising it altogether. Defective reasoning like this on Eisler’s part stands side-by-side with other more competent handling of texts and their tortuous paths of evolution.18

18  It might be said that the great fire at Rome was not germane to any of Josephus topics, neither to Jewish history nor to the Jewish War, and there was no need for Josephus to mention it. On the other hand, Josephus often introduces passages about some event or other that is equally non-germane to his main themes, such as the very paragraph which follows on the Testimonium in Antiquities 18, about the seduction of the Roman matron Paulina which involves neither Jews nor the war. But whether it was specifically pertinent or not, Josephus' silence on the great fire actually has repercussions. There is no doubt that once Josephus took up residence in Rome after the Jewish War, he would have learned—if he had not already—about the fire and seen its consequences. (Eisler suggests that he was actually in Rome at the time of the fire, but this is doubtful. In his Life [3 / 13-16], Josephus talks of his voyage to Rome in his "twenty-sixth year" which would be about 62-3 CE, but although he does not say precisely how long he stayed, it does not seem it was for long, and if the fire had occurred during his visit, it would incredible if he did not mention it.)
     If the passage about Christ in Tacitus’
Annals is authentic, and Christians were slaughtered by Nero as scapegoats for the fire, that too is something Josephus would have learned about. This would have brought Christians as a movement into his line of vision quite dramatically, and with it the figure of Jesus. He should almost certainly have been led to investigate them and become familiar with their beliefs and with the reputed activities of their founder. And yet, as we are discovering here, all the evidence points to him saying nothing about Jesus and Christianity in all of his works. We might even have expected that a Josephan passage about Jesus and Christianity would have included a reference to the Neronian persecution and with it the great fire, since both would have been dramatic and colorful enough to interest him and his readers, and yet there is no hint in any version of the Testimonium, or in Josephus anywhere, that such an event with such a connection was to found. Of course, the other repercussion is on the Tacitus passage itself. If Josephus had any knowledge of and interest in Christians, the event of the Neronian persecution of Christians would have impressed itself upon him and heightened that knowledge and interest in them, even if the reality of the matter did not include an historical founder. Since neither the fire definitely, nor Christians and Jesus probably, are to be found in his works, this calls into question the authenticity of the Tacitus passage, at least where the role of Christians and Christ are concerned.

The Evolution of Jewish War

True to form, however, much of Eisler’s reasoning in his tracing of manuscript evolution and derivation bears his own imprint. Scholars are agreed that the work we now know as Jewish War was in its initial version an Aramaic composition intended for a Jewish readership and other Aramaic speaking communities in the east, designed to discourage any further aggression against Rome. It was probably started before the War ended, but its precise date of publication is uncertain. Josephus then turned his efforts to a Greek version, whose date of publication, according to Thackeray in his Introduction to the Loeb edition of Jewish War, “is commonly regarded as falling within the latter half of the reign of Vespasian, between A.D. 75 and 79” (p. xii). It was produced with the aid of Greek secretaries and was an extensive rewriting of the Aramaic version. Between these two, however, Eisler inserts an original Greek edition which was essentially a translation of the Aramaic by those Greek secretaries, though perhaps with some revisions under Josephus’ direction. It was hurriedly completed, he says, in time for Titus’ triumph held at Rome in June of 71. Subsequent to this, Josephus worked on further editions and rewrites for at least another decade, now aimed at an entirely Greco-Roman audience. (Scholars have not generally chosen to follow Eisler in his scenario.)

The original Aramaic has not survived. Textual analysis of the Slavonic Josephus in the years prior to Eisler argued that it was dependent on the lost Aramaic. Eisler rejected this, and instead refined the idea by maintaining that it was derived from an original Greek version of Jewish War which had itself been little more than a translation of the Aramaic. He offered internal evidence (see, for example, p.130-1) that the Slavonic Josephus was based on a Greek text which contained indications of the original Aramaic version, and thus he felt that the Slavonic texts were a pipeline back to Josephus’ earliest writings. In his view, the title of the work also evolved. It would seem that the Aramaic version, and the first Greek edition derived from it, bore the title “The Conquest (or Capture) of Jerusalem.” (Indeed, according to Thackeray, many of the extant manuscripts bear that title.) Sometime in the course of producing later editions it was changed to Jewish War, and references to the work’s title by Josephus himself conform to the latter. Eisler points out (as does Feldman) that early Christian writers such as Origen often referred in their own texts to the work using the phrase “peri halōseōs”—“about the capture” (see Messiah Jesus, p.119-120). This is the only title which appears in the Slavonic manuscripts.

The “Halosis,” then, is Eisler’s deduced title not only for the original Aramaic work but the earliest Greek version as well that he believes was based on it. He also uses it to refer to the Slavonic Josephus, which quotes as a title the same phrase based on the Greek word “halōseōs,” rendered in anglicized form as “Halosis.”

Separating the Good from the Bad…

In the middle of the book, Eisler examines Jesus’ ministry and message, presenting many conclusions and reconstructions as to the details of both. Much of these are based on a confidence in New Testament accuracy about Jesus’ words and deeds which we now know is misplaced, and on a similar confidence in recovered fragments of other sources. A reliance on Josephus’ relative chronologies leads him to set Jesus’ crucifixion in the year 19. And for his picture of that event in Jerusalem, Eisler draws on the Slavonic Halosis, which is to say—in his view—the original Josephan account of Jesus, now lost from his extant works.

The principle of critical methodology Eisler employs is stated on page 382:

“everything of anti-Christian character, every contemptuous or disparaging allusion to Jesus and his followers, may be regarded offhand as the authentic work of Josephus; every statement exonerating Jesus and favourable to him and his disciples is to be set aside as an interpolation or correction introduced by a Christian reader or copyist.”

Since many of the “statements” and “allusions” he is referring to are his own reconstructions, such reliability in either direction is arrived at through a self-fulfilling process. Eisler also allows that the portrait of Jesus he has thus created may not be entirely authentic due to negative exaggeration on the non-Christian side, but at least we can know more or less what Josephus said. In addition, Eisler feels entitled to fill in the gaps in certain texts (like the Slavonic), gaps which he has identified by drawing on other sources which he believes may reflect the material he regards as having been removed by the Christian censors.

Eisler applies his principle first to the passage in the Slavonic text which speaks of Jesus (the fourth of those eight passages). As noted earlier, this is a long passage reminiscent of the Testimonium in its opening lines, but thereafter expanding on Jesus’ ministry in a way that has little of the Gospel flavor and virtually none of its details. Here is the full text [note 19]:

IV. The Ministry, Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus.

1. At that time also a man came forward, if even it is fitting to call him a man [simply]. 2. His nature as well as his form were a man’s; but his showing forth was more than [that] of a man. 3. His works, that is to say, were godly, and he wrought wonder-deeds amazing and full of power. 4. Therefore it is not possible for me to call him a man [simply]. 5. But again, looking at the existence he shared with all, I would also not call him an angel.

6. And all that he wrought through some kind of invisible power, he wrought by word and command. 7. Some said of him, that our first Lawgiver has risen from the dead and shows forth many cures and arts. 8. But others supposed [less definitely] that he is sent by God. 9. Now he opposed himself in much to the Law and did not observe the Sabbath according to ancestral custom. 10. Yet, on the other hand, he did nothing reprehensible nor any crime; but by word solely he effected everything. 11. And many from the folk followed him and received his teachings. 12. And many souls became wavering, supposing that thereby the Jewish tribes would set themselves free from the Roman hands.

13. Now it was his custom often to stop on the Mount of Olives facing the city. 14. And there also he avouched his cures to the people. 15. And there gathered themselves to him of servants a hundred and fifty, but of the folk a multitude. 16. But when they saw his power, that he accomplished everything that he would by word, they urged him that he should enter the city and cut down the Roman soldiers and Pilate and rule over us. 17. But that one scorned it.

18. And thereafter, when knowledge of it came to the Jewish leaders, they gathered together with the High-priest and spake: “We are powerless and weak to withstand the Romans. 19. But as withal the bow is bent, we will go and tell Pilate what we have heard, and we will be without distress, lest if he hear it from others, we be robbed of our substance and ourselves be put to the sword and our children ruined.” 20. And they went and told it to Pilate. 

21. And he [Pilate] sent and had many of the people cut down. 22. And he had that wonder-doer brought up. And when he had instituted a trial concerning him, he perceived that he is a doer of good, but not an evildoer, nor a revolutionary, nor one who aimed at power, and set him free. 23. He had, you should know, healed his dying wife. 24. And he went to his accustomed place and wrought his accustomed works. 25. And as again more folk gathered themselves together round him, then did he win glory through his works more than all.

26. The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. 27. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. 28. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.

[Translation from the Slavonic taken from “Sacred Texts” at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/gno/gjb/gjb-3.htm]

Eisler focuses on Pilate’s verdict in verses toward the end. Here I will use Eisler’s own German translation rendered in English by his translator:

“…that he was [a benefactor, but not] a malefactor, [nor] a rebel, [nor] covetous of kingship. [And he let him go, for he had healed his dying wife. And after he had gone to his wonted place, he did his wonted works. And when more people again gathered round him, he glorified himself by his action(s) more than all. The scribes were stung with envy and gave Pilate thirty talents to kill him. And he took (it) and gave them liberty to carry out their will (themselves).] And they took him and crucified him [contrary] to the law of (their) fathers.”

There is no question that Eisler is quite correct in judging that this passage is a Christian product in its bracketed words, first as a refutation of Pilate’s supposed judgment of the opposite (read without the negatives), and since the healing of Pilate’s wife was a later Christian legend with no basis in fact, as is the implication Pilate had found Jesus innocent and took a bribe to allow the Jews to execute Jesus. He also argues the impossibility of Josephus portraying the Jews as the actual crucifiers, but sees this as later traditions based on literal readings of phrases in Luke and Matthew. The same unlikelihood is found in the spurious Acts of Pilate. As Eisler observes, had the Jews been granted permission to kill Jesus, it would have been by stoning, with hanging on a tree only after death.

As for the rest of the passage about Jesus in the Slavonic, Eisler subjects it to a number of small ‘corrections’ with the help of obscure references in other works, Christian and otherwise, which he thinks throw light on the question. At the same time, he indulges in complementary reasoning such as that statements like “his nature and his form were human” and “given his ordinary nature” would have required some explanatory description. Thus, “(Josephus) must have said more than now appears in the text” (p.392). And so we find ourselves on the road to reaching that description of Jesus which still enjoys life on the Internet.

…and arriving at the Ugly

How does Eisler fill in the supposed gap in both the Slavonic text and the underlying Greek text which he believes once contained that description, a description he sees as grounded in the authentic Josephus? After noting Ernst von Dobschutz’ collection of “all extant sources relating to the historical development of the literary portrait of Jesus,” and that a number of references to Jesus’ appearance occur in the Church Fathers, Eisler focuses first on Andrew of Crete. In the early 8th century he wrote the following in a preserved fragment of a work on image worship:

“But moreover the Jew Josephus in like manner narrates that the Lord was seen having connate eyebrows, goodly eyes, long-faced, crooked, well grown.” [p.393, quoting the translation by Alexander Haggerty Krappe]

A similar description is found in a number of later works, such as by John of Damascus and others quoting him, along with various obscure Byzantine writers, who describe Jesus in nearly identical fashion. (See p.618-20, taken from Dobschutz’s collection.) Eisler dismisses as “frivolous” the charge by some in his day that they all proceed from Andrew of Crete, who invented it. He also finds the odd subtle indication in a title or scholion (explanatory marginal or interlineal note) that a given text once possessed a physical description of Jesus which seems to have been removed, though his defense of such subtleties can be strained.

Eisler calls attention (p.397) to the extant “Letter of Lentulus” to the Senate of Rome, bearing the inscription “about the form and works of Jesus Christ.” It describes Jesus in terms reminiscent of the Testimonium, but with added material including physical descriptions, which Eisler links with the Slavonic Jesus passage and its reputed censored and deleted portions. He deduces that it was originally cast as a letter by Pilate (for which there is some manuscript support), one describing Jesus’ physical appearance in terms similar to those of Andrew of Crete, quite possibly appended to the spurious Acts of Pilate mentioned by Justin and Tertullian. This enables him to date it very early (no one else had previously been able to date it at all), but he is forced to try to come up with a feasible explanation for why the source was changed from Pilate to the obscure Lentulus. That early dating, even though the work is obviously a Christian fabrication, brings it, he thinks, into the original Josephus orbit, giving yet another clue to what the Jewish historian had actually written about Jesus in his original Halosis.

Then there is the supposed genuine Acts of Pilate first published by Maximinus in 311 (the Memoranda mentioned by Eusebius, discussed above). This publication was supposedly taken from official Roman archives. Eisler has a long section (p.13f) in which he argues, not too solidly backed, that Roman records were so common and scrupulously kept that the idea that Pilate had written an official account of Jesus’ execution—one which could have included a description of Jesus—is not outlandish at all. He judges that these Acts, published by the emperor and circulated to public schools to counter a growing and troublesome Christianity, were in fact genuine, taken from archives almost three centuries old, even though Christians of the time declared them forgeries and destroyed them utterly when they got the chance. Such Acts, if genuine, would add fuel to Eisler’s fire of a description of Jesus which could be brought back into the first century and tentatively connected with Josephus’ own supposed description in an original Testimonium. As well, he can postulate that these destroyed Acts contained a description which was accurate and may represent the basic source of all those later descriptions we find in Andrew of Crete and others, and which are ‘evidently’ missing from documents like the Slavonic Josephus.

From the extant Testimonium to the Gospel of John, Eisler hypothesizes an arrest warrant for Jesus drawn up by the Jewish authorities which would, of necessity, “contain as full and complete a description as possible of the person ‘wanted’.” The Letter of Lentulus has an unsurpassed detailed description of Jesus which Eisler regards as an adoring expansion by a Christian forger of “an extract from Josephus, whose description of Jesus according to the genuine (warrant), or rather the extracts from it in the commentarii of Emperor Tiberius, the forger utilized” (p.404). By deleting the most favorable words and phrases in the description given by Lentulus, Eisler reconstructs the Josephan original, an original which appeared in the initial Slavonic text before it was deleted by Christian censors. This is the text of the Letter of Lentulus [note 20]:

The Letter of Lentulus, as translated by Robert Eisler (Messiah Jesus, p.404):

“There has appeared in these times and still is (at large) a man, if it is right to call (him) a man, of great virtue, called Christ whose name is Jesus, who is said by the gentiles to be a prophet of truth, whom his disciples call Son of God, raising the dead and healing all diseases: a man of stature, tall, medium, i.e. fifteen palms and a half and sightly, having a venerable face, which beholders might love and dread, having hair of the colour of an unripe hazel and smooth almost to the ears, but from the ears down corkscrew curls somewhat darker-coloured and more glistening, waving downwards from the shoulders, having a parting on the middle of his head after the manner of the Naziraeans, a brow smooth and most serene, with a face without a wrinkle or spot, beautified by a (moderately) ruddy colour; with nose and mouth there is no fault whatever. Having a beard copious but immature, of the same colour as the hair (and) not long but parted in the middle. Having a simple and mature aspect, with blue eyes of varying hue and bright. In rebuke terrible, in admonition bland and amiable. Cheerful, yet preserving gravity: he sometimes wept, but never laughed. In stature of body tall and erect: having hands and arms delectable to the sight. In converse grave, sweet and modest, so that justly according to the prophet was he called beauteous above the sons of men. For he is the king of glory, upon whom angels desire to look, at whose beauty sun and moon marvel, the saviour of the world, the author of life: to him be honour and glory for ever, Amen.”

Eisler simply eliminated all the complimentary words and phrases on the assumption that they were Christian additions, leaving the ‘authentic’ description quite unflattering, most of which he fed into his own reconstruction. The “(at large)” in the first line is Eisler casting this as Josephus drawing on an arrest warrant for Jesus which he supposedly found in the archives.
     I have here only been able to give a rough impression of Eisler’s technique, which impresses for its encyclopedic knowledge and manipulation of known, obscure and lost texts, but, being held together by dubious logic and rejection of less sensational alternatives, nevertheless creates the impression of a vast and intricate “Rube Goldberg” machine [a dictionary definition: “deviously complex and impractical” named after an early 20th century cartoonist who drew comically elaborate contraptions] which, with the unsettling or removal of one constitutive piece, would come crashing down.

But we have not yet arrived at Eisler’s ultimate portrait of Jesus. While there are inconsistencies and even contradictions in the descriptions of both Lentulus and Andrew of Crete—a beard said to be both copious and immature, a height both tall and bent—they do not reach the degree of outright ugliness found in Eisler’s reconstruction from the Halosis, since in keeping with his methodological principles he has eliminated the attractive and retained the unattractive; the latter, he maintains, were censored by the Church due to their uninspiring nature. Various comments in the record portray Jesus as of a height anywhere from virtually a dwarf to a commanding six feet. Eisler chooses the former as more accurate. Some have Jesus’ eyebrows meeting in the middle which signified in ancient times something frightening, like a vampire or werewolf; accordingly, that aspect of the various descriptions goes into Eisler’s pot. As he says, “A tentative restoration of the text must therefore clearly start from the principle that the lectio difficilior, i.e. the one which would give offence to believing Christians and to their Hellenistic ideal of male beauty, must be retained.” Since Jesus in some documents was given a “twin” by the name of Thomas, who was portrayed in the Acts of Thomas as small in stature, therefore Jesus was too. (Even Mary, according to Andrew of Crete, was particularly short.) In fact, Eisler interprets certain phrases as “obvious modifications” of “hunchbacked,” and thus Jesus becomes another Quasimodo.

The proverb “Physician, heal thyself,” referred to by Jesus during his reading of the Isaian prophecies about healing (Lk. 4:23), is interpreted as referring to the deformities Jesus himself possessed even as he healed them in others. This is a strained reading, since the contrast in the Lukan passage is between the miracles Jesus performed in Capernaum and his failure or refusal to perform any in his hometown of Nazareth. The example given in 4:25-26, about Elijah going abroad to perform his miracles, demonstrates this clearly. Eisler recognizes the problem, but prefers to postulate that something is missing from the text rather than see that the proverb is simply not a good fit to the point being made by Luke, or that it is hardly reasonable that an evangelist would insert a reference (here alone in all the Gospels) to Jesus’ striking deformity in the midst of a passage which is otherwise entirely devoted to the issue of a prophet not being recognized in his own country. Through this misreading, Eisler’s imagination is opened to “some infirmity which he might be mockingly called upon to heal; and…that this infirmity must have been visible to all, and so striking that the taunt would rise to the lips of all who looked upon the speaker”—namely, that he was hunchbacked. This in turn leads Eisler into a lengthy psychoanalysis of Jesus’ character and its consequences in his conviction of a “vocation to suffering” as a vicarious sin-offering to redeem the world (p.417-20). (Shades of the prophet Yescha in Vardis Fishers The Divine Passion, fifth novel in his Testament of Man.)

Skin and hair color are likewise arrived at through various reasonings. As more derogatory, the term “scanty-haired” in the Byzantine writers is “consequently genuine,” but worn in Nazirite fashion, parted in the middle according to Lentulus’ letter. Because “long-nosed” has been ‘altered’ to “well-nosed” in a post-Andrew source, the former must be accurate.

And so we arrive at Eisler’s reconstructed portrait of Jesus as ultimately traced back through a myriad of records across a thousand years to be placed on the doorstep of Josephus himself. He introduces it as part of the larger reconstructed insertion in the Slavonic text as it was drawn from and would have appeared in the original Jewish War which Josephus called “The Capture of Jerusalem,” the “Halosis.” He sandwiches it between the two sections on “tumults” caused by Pilate over the effigies and the aqueducts, those equivalent to the first two sections of chapter 3 in Book 18 of the Antiquities which precede the Testimonium.

Eisler’s first paragraph of this reconstruction, an expansion of the existing first paragraph of the Slavonic Josephus passage (see Note 19), reads, with the description of Jesus in italics:

 “At that time, too, there appeared a certain man of magical power, if it is permissible to call him a man, whom (certain) Greeks call a son of God, but his disciples the true prophet, (said to) raise the dead and heal all diseases. His nature and his form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose, and meeting eyebrows, so that they who see him might be affrighted, with scanty hair (but) with a parting in the middle of his head, after the manner of the Nazirites, and with an undeveloped beard. Only in semblance was he superhuman, (for) he gave some astonishing and spectacular exhibitions. But again, if I look at his commonplace physique I (for one) cannot call him an angel…” [The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, p.466-7]

Isaiah the ‘Prophet’ of the Description

None of this description, nor any within the various sources Eisler draws on, is to be found in the Gospels, let alone the New Testament epistles, nor indeed in any Christian writing for the first century and a half of the movement. Where all of this material actually came from can be deduced from the earliest Christian commentator to offer a physical description of Jesus: Tertullian, beginning with his On the Flesh of Christ, chapter 9. This passage is sometimes quoted in support of accepting Eisler’s reconstruction—but not in its entirety, for the latter parts clearly show where Tertullian is getting his ideas, and it is not from Christian historical tradition. He is countering the Gnostic claim that Jesus’ constitution was heavenly, something infused with divinity and spiritual splendor, an astral substance:

“But if there had been in Him any new kind of flesh miraculously obtained (from the stars), it would have been certainly well known. As the case stood, however, it was actually the ordinary condition of His terrene flesh which made all things else about Him wonderful, as when they said, ‘When hath this man this wisdom and these mighty works?’ Thus spake even they who despised His outward form. His body did not reach even to human beauty, to say nothing of heavenly glory. Had the prophets given us no information whatever concerning his ignoble appearance, His very sufferings and the very contumely He endured bespeak it all.” [Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.3, p.530; emphasis mine, here and below]

Tertullian is clearly saying that Christians had no information about Jesus’ appearance outside of ‘prophecies’ in the Jewish scriptures. In his Against Marcion, Book 3, chapter 17, this source is laid out even more clearly:

“Let us compare with Scripture the rest of His dispensation. Whatever that poor despised body may be, because it was an object of touch and sight, it shall be my Christ, be He inglorious, be He ignoble, be He dishonoured; for such was it announced that he should be, both in bodily condition and aspect. Isaiah comes to our help again: ‘We have announced (His way) before Him,’ says he; ‘He is like a servant, like a root in a dry ground; He hath no form nor comeliness; we saw Him, and He had neither form nor beauty; but his Form was despised, marred above all men.’ Similarly the Father addressed the Son just before: ‘Inasmuch as many will be astonished at Thee, so also will Thy beauty be without glory from men’.” [Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.3, p.335]

Tertullian seems to embrace and even exaggerate Jesus’ ugliness as something psychologically satisfying, a defensive propensity which may have been operating in many Christians through the centuries of persecution and ridicule. It was a denial of the world and its standards, placing in their stead, as several of these commentators do, the more exalted state of spiritual beauty and righteous perfection. Isaiah has conveniently offered them that option. We need see no derogatory remarks by Josephus behind any of it.

Tertullian has said that we know of Jesus’ appearance through the prophets, not through historical tradition, and certainly not from Josephus. If any envisioning of Jesus’ appearance arose in the Christian community in the 2nd century once the Gospels were established as history, the simplest explanation is that it formed under the influence of scripture, just as did so much else about Jesus’ imagined words and deeds. The Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53 was the kingmaker. Not that Eisler himself was ignorant of this connection (op.cit., p.417). He envisions Jesus as “probably” appealing to the Isaian passage as a testament to his own deformity and proof of his destiny, one who “is said to have ‘no form or comeliness,’ crooked and shriveled like ‘a root in a dry ground,’ ‘a man of sorrow and acquainted with sickness, despised and rejected of men…smitten of God and afflicted, yet wounded for their transgressions’.”

The testimony of Origen renders this scriptural source even clearer. Early in Contra Celsum (Bk. I, ch. 69), he reports Celsus as saying: “The body of god would not have been so generated as you, O Jesus, were.” Here, Celsus is not specific as to why Jesus’ body was less than godlike, but Origen seems to agree that it was not. He too, however, would seem to be basing that opinion on Isaiah. In his discussion as to the nature of Jesus’ body, he declares it to have been without sin: “For it is distinctly clear to us that ‘He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; and as one who knew no sin,’ God delivered Him up as pure for all who had sinned.” Those phrases, once again, are from Isaiah 53. Jesus’ sinlessness is determined not by any historical report of the man himself, but through knowledge bestowed by those who had prophesied him.

Then later in Contra Celsum (VI, 75), the scriptural source for Jesus’ description emerges unmistakably, and not only in regard to Origen himself. While one might think it reasonable that Celsus could have picked up his ideas about Jesus’ appearance from current Christian thought (in the 170s) based on scripture, Origen does not indicate this. In fact, he attributes Celsus’ view of Jesus as itself derived directly from scripture by the pagan critic. Let’s look at the passage. Celsus has maintained that if “a divine spirit inhabited Jesus’ body” it must have possessed grandeur, beauty and impressiveness; it should have possessed a quality beyond others. Yet, he scoffs,

“this person [Jesus] did not differ in any respect from another, but was, as they report, little, and ill-favoured, and ignoble.”

Does Origen take this as Celsus reporting Christian hearsay of the day? Quite the contrary, he makes this accusation:

“…when Celsus wishes to bring a charge against Jesus, he adduces the sacred writings, as one who believed them to be writings apparently fitted to afford a handle for a charge against Him.”

In other words, Origen accuses Celsus of putting the worst cast he can on scriptural prophecy about Jesus.

“There are, indeed, admitted to be recorded some statements respecting the body of Jesus having been ‘ill-favoured;’ not, however, ‘ignoble,’ as has been stated, nor is there any certain evidence that he was ‘little.’ The language of Isaiah runs as follows, who prophesied regarding Him…”

And Origen launches into selected quotes from the Suffering Servant Song, admitting that Isaiah bespoke his lack of beauty, “inferior to the sons of men.” But against this, he accuses Celsus of ignoring other passages which create a more attractive picture, and he points to the 45th Psalm with its reference to “Thy comeliness and beauty.” Between the two, he makes this remark:

“These passages [of Isaiah], then, Celsus listened to, because he thought they were of use to him in bringing a charge [of ugliness] against Jesus.”

There can hardly be better evidence that descriptions of Jesus, in both Celsus’ and Origen’s time, were entirely dependent on scripture, and accepted to be so. If traditions about Jesus’ appearance were current in the 2nd and 3rd centuries which Christians believed were orally transmitted from the time of Jesus himself, Origen would hardly assume that even the pagan Celsus had to have taken his picture of Jesus from scripture. Tertullian would not have made the remarks he did as to not knowing anything about Jesus’ appearance if the prophets had not revealed it. (We might note here the utter unlikelihood that, if an historical Jesus had existed, absolutely no traditions about his appearance would have developed during his life, to be remembered and passed on through oral or written channels, or that nothing about his appearance, from whatever source, can be found in Christian writings until the beginning of the 3rd century.)  Eisler’s entire thesis has been brought low by the clear indication in the earliest record on the subject that any portrait of Jesus has been derived entirely from the sacred writings. The supreme irony is that today’s critical scholarship of the Old Testament has rejected the very concept of the ancient prophets speaking of anything but their own times and their own Jewish expectations of the future—usually an immediate one.

While Eisler’s book-long argument has been complex, wide-ranging and adventurous, managing to touch on more writers, documents, obscure figures and astonishing arcana than perhaps anything else between two covers in modern scholarship, the flaws in his process are plain to see. There is an almost embarrassing naiveté inherent in the summing up of his methodology, which he gives on p.430:

“As will be seen, this composite text has been obtained by no ‘witchery’ whatever, but by simply separating all portions favourable to Jesus, and therefore a priori to be suspected as of Christian origin, from the text of the Halosis, from the quotations from Josephus found in certain Byzantine chroniclers and the letter of Lentulus shown to have drawn on the text of Josephus, and by putting together the material thus left. To believe that a narrative so coherent and logical can be a mere play of accident is to believe the impossible.”

But the logical coherence has been manipulated by Eisler; and his complete ignoring of the likely role of scripture in the initial formulation of this portrait is a profound and self-imposed short-sightedness. Eisler is also guilty of sprinkling—nay, flooding—his text with remarks as to how no intelligent, or educated, or unbiased reader could fail to agree with his carefully arrived-at conclusions. So many of his deductions are labeled “certainly,” “without doubt,” and the like. Those today who have seized on that description of Jesus as reliably founded, or deduced from it that Jesus must have existed because no one would “make up” a description like that for the founder of their faith, have evidently not followed Eisler’s tortuous route in arriving at it, and have not given various parts of the process the skepticism they deserve. They have not taken into account the lateness of its development. Indeed, Eisler has drawn it from the Christian future and retrojected it into the past. And they have not recognized all which points to the inspiration for it being that which has proven to be the source of so much early Christian doctrine and expression, encompassing even the Gospels with their pervasive building blocks of midrash: the Jewish scriptures.
[End of Excursus]

The Galilean vs. the Jerusalem Jesus

In view of modern scholarship’s division of Christian beginnings into two separate spheres of response to Jesus, further observations on the reliability of the Testimonium Flavianum are in order.

In any location outside Palestine and Syria, all the evidence concerning Christianity in the latter first century relates to the cultic expression of the Pauline type. Here Jesus is the cosmic Son of God, creator and sustainer of the universe, source of salvation through his death and resurrection. That evidence, in writings like the New Testament epistles of the first century, Revelation, 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Odes of Solomon, has nothing to say about the Galilean side of things, about the ministry as portrayed in the Gospels and Q—nor about Jesus’ death under Pilate. (See various Supplementary Articles for these topics.)

If we can assume that Josephus, writing in the 90s, would reflect views of Jesus current in Rome at the time, how do we explain the fact that the Testimonium says nothing about the cultic Christ of Paul, the redemptive Son of God who was an exalted divinity? Such cosmic claims and descriptions about the Son as are found in the first century epistles would have been a part of the Christian ethos which Josephus was exposed to. (Paul addresses the Roman congregation in those terms, indicating that this is the way Roman Christians regarded Jesus. 1 Clement, written in Rome and contemporary with Josephus, speaks in similar terms about the spiritual Christ.)

If Christians were going about talking of their founder in terms familiar to us from the epistles, this elevation of a crucified criminal to the very status of divine Son of the God of Abraham would hardly have been ignored by Josephus. For Josephus was intimately concerned with his Jewish heritage, its traditions and beliefs. The natural affront to Jewish sensibilities in the fundamental Christian doctrine about Jesus, its blasphemous association of a human man with God and the bestowing on him of all of God’s divine titles, would have received the closest attention from the historian, and inevitably his condemnation.

Nothing in the “authentic” Testimonium breathes a whisper of the Pauline Son of God. Instead, it sets its sights no higher than the Gospel-like picture of a remarkable sage who was crucified and gave rise to a new movement. With the addition of the resurrection, this is essentially Mark’s amalgamation of Q with a passion narrative. This absence of any dimension relating to the cultic Christ is further evidence that the Testimonium is a product of second, third or even fourth century Christian outlook, one in which the Gospel picture predominates, while the earlier cosmic Christ has receded into the shadows behind it.

II: The Brother of Jesus, (the One) Called Christ


The second passage referring to Jesus is found in Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 20 (9, 1 / 197-203). Defenders declare the key phrase (in bold) to be more reliable than the recovered Testimonium as authentic to Josephus, and that there is a virtual consensus among scholars as to that authenticity. I hope to show that such confidence is misplaced. This is the passage as it now stands:

“But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea....But the younger Ananus who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition....Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrin and brought before them the brother of Jesus, (the one)21 called Christ [ton adelphon Iēsou tou legomenou Christou], James by name, together with some others and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned.  But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this, and sent secretly to the king, requesting him to order Ananus to cease such proceedings. . . And the king, Agrippa, in consequence, deprived him of the high priesthood, which he had held three months, and appointed Jesus, the son of Damneus.”

21 Strictly speaking, in “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ,” the words “the one” are not necessary. The word “tou” in “ton adelphon Iēsou tou legomenou Christou” represents a grammatical practice in Greek of repeating or inserting the article before an attributive adjective when it follows the noun it modifies. For example, “the good work” is rendered “to ergon to agathon (lit., the work the good).” In our case, “legomenou” is a participle, but used as an adjective modifying “Iēsou,” and thus the article “tou” is inserted. The Greek is not necessarily making a special point of saying “the one” as the English suggests. Translations of the passage usually include “the one” but sometimes it is merely “called Christ.” (Compare Matthew 4:18, where Jesus saw “Simon called Peter”: “Simōna ton legomenon Petron.”) The latter is the form I will use.

All manuscripts of the Antiquities show essentially the same phrase. But we have nothing earlier than the 11th century, and by then one of the universal tendencies in manuscript transmission, that all copies of a well-known passage gravitate toward the best-known wording, as well as toward the inclusion of the passage itself, would have ensured that this reference to Jesus in its present form would long since have been found in all copies.

On the surface, the phrase about Jesus serves to identify James. This inclusion of an identifying piece of information, say those arguing for authenticity, is something Josephus does for most of his characters. True enough, but this does not guarantee that he did it in this case, or that the present phrase is the original one; Josephus may have said something else which Christians later changed. On the other hand, if he knew nothing else about James or chose to say nothing more, he would simply have used some equivalent to “a certain James” or “someone named James.” And what in fact do we find in the Greek? The words referring directly to James are: Iakōbos onoma autōi. Translations render this “James by name” or “whose name was James” or “a man named James.” Such a phrase could have stood perfectly well on its own (with a change in grammatical form), and had the reference to a brother Jesus added to it by a Christian interpolator. (We will also see that “the brother of Jesus” could be authentic to Josephus.)

As Eddy and Boyd admit (op.cit., p.188), if we were to assume that he is referring to the Christian James, one could ask why Josephus would identify him this way, since his readership “arguably would have known no more about Jesus than they would have about James.” On the other hand, if Josephus had written some version of the Testimonium two books earlier in the Antiquities, would the reader have been expected to link the reference in Book 20 with it? Would the latter’s phrase have been considered sufficient as a “referring back” to the character Jesus earlier mentioned? In an Internet article, Steven Carr notes that when going back some distance, Josephus tends to provide enough detail to orient the reader toward the earlier mention of the figure and bring back to mind what had been said about him. Carr provides several examples, such as this one:

“Judas was also in Antiquities 18: ‘Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty’.”

“Josephus referred back to Judas in Antiquities 20: ‘the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book’.”22

22 At: http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/marston2.htm

In the second paragraph, the reference back contains several details, including the stated point that Josephus is referring to an earlier described figure. By contrast, “called Christ” in the Ananus passage is sparse. It would hardly be enough to carry the reader back to a short paragraph two books earlier, especially if it originally contained no reference to the “Christ.” If there had been no Testimonium at all, the phrase in Antiquities 20 would be left on its own, with a completely inadequate identification of its “Jesus.”

Without the reference to Jesus, the passage makes good sense and does not jar within the context. The passage is not about James—much less about Jesus. It is about the high priest Ananus and his fate. Ananus was deposed because he had executed “a man named James and certain others,” an act which incensed some of the influential Jews of the city. The reader did not need to know anything else about those who had been stoned.

As a Marginal Gloss

It is important to note that the phrase is actually made up of two distinct parts. This James is identified as “the brother of Jesus,” but this Jesus is himself identified as “called Christ.” The possibility of interpolation, then, could apply to either the composite reference, or only to the second element. Both options have been proposed, beginning with the simplest process, namely that “James” stood alone in the original text and a Christian scribe added a marginal note, “the brother of Jesus, called Christ,” the scribe assuming that it was the Christian James the Just that was being referred to, perhaps in light of a tradition that this James had died around that time. Alternatively, the original text may have included “the brother of Jesus” as Josephus’ identification of his James, and a marginal note, “called Christ” served to identify the Jesus the scribe believed Josephus was speaking of. In either case, the marginal note was subsequently inserted into the text. In view of the difficulties, as we shall see, which are involved in envisioning Josephus as the author of the composite phrase, and especially its second part, the marginal note would be the simplest and most effective explanation.

It is occasionally suggested that the entire passage could be a Christian interpolation, since in Jewish War (IV, 5, 2 / 318-21) Josephus talks of Ananus’ conduct during the war in terms that are entirely complimentary, in contrast to the Antiquities passage which is quite critical and unfriendly toward him. A Christian could be killing two birds with one stone in making Josephus speak of Jesus’ brother James while casting aspersions on the man who had executed him. But this fails to take into account that Josephus, between his two works, occasionally presents things differently and even changes his mind in his evaluation of people and events, presumably based on revised judgment or further knowledge acquired in the interim. The passage as a whole fits too well into its surrounding context for it to be a likely later addition.

Jesus Who?

Some have suggested that Josephus actually did write “brother of Jesus” but was referring to some other Jesus. There are 21 different Jesus figures in Josephus, one of which we can see at the very end of the passage in question, “Jesus son of Damneus.” Both “Jesus” and “James” were very common names at this time, and four of the High Priests who served between the death of Herod the Great and the destruction of the Temple in 70 bore the former name. It is possible that it is this “Jesus son of Damneus” who is being referred to. He may have had a brother named James whom Ananus executed along with some associates for reasons unknown (“violating the law” does not tell us the reason, and even were it the Christian James being referred to, we would not know the reason for his execution). There could be a natural link between this Jesus having his brother murdered by the current High Priest and being subsequently appointed to that position in the deposed Ananus’ stead, we are just not told enough to know.

    One proposed objection to this is that the identifying patronymic “son of Damneus” has been delayed until the later reference to him in the passage, rather than being included with the first reference. This, however, while perhaps creating an odd effect (since an author usually includes the identifying phrase with the first appearance of someone), is not unknown in Josephus. Perhaps a preoccupation with Jesus’ brother James at the initial spot led Josephus to delay the patronymic identification for a few lines. This deviation from a norm does not preclude the first reference to Jesus from originally having been to Jesus son of Damneus.23

23  Shaye Cohen (Josephus in Galilee and Rome) states: “The uneven method of introducing and re-introducing characters and places is particularly conspicuous in Vita (“Life”). Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria is mentioned first in Vita 23 but his title does not appear until Vita 30….Jesus ben Sapphia is introduced in Vita 134 as if he were a new character although he appeared at least once before….We meet Ananias, a member of the delegation, in Vita 197, but Josephus describes him in Vita 290 as if for the first time….Any deductions about Josephus’ sources based on these inconsistencies are unreliable.”—quoted on an IIDB forum by D. C. Hindley, who comments: “Josephus, for the most part, does identify new characters (either by naming family relationships and/or significance for a particular location) at first introduction (at least those named Jesus), but also can be inconsistent in introducing and re-introducing characters. I can only propose that AJ 20.200 might represent such a case.” Steve Mason also had this to say in an email posted on the IIDB: “…The Iēsous in Tiberias (Life, 271) is the archon, or council-president ([not stated until] 278-79)—a case of mentioning the name shortly before giving the identification. That also happens occasionally in [Jewish] War. I have wondered whether it is not a deliberate narrative technique: provoking the reader to wonder who this guy is, and then supplying the identification after a few sentences…” 

There is a suspicious aspect to the reference to Jesus, in that it comes first in the text. That is, the passage reads: “(Ananus) brought before them the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James by name, together with some others...” Why would Josephus think to make the Jesus idea paramount, placing it before the James one? James is the main figure, the character that brought about Ananus’ downfall, while mention of Jesus is supposed to be simply an identifier for him. It would have been much more natural for Josephus to say something like: “(Ananus) brought before them a man named James, who was the brother of Jesus, called Christ...” On the other hand, if the phrase is the product of a Christian scribe, it would be understandable that he, consciously or unconsciously, would have given reference to Jesus pride of place.

This remains a valid consideration, but there could be another way of looking at it. As R. G. Price points out, if the passage is essentially about Ananus and the rise to the high priesthood of the son of Damneus in his place, then a reference to this Jesus ahead of his brother who was the victim of Ananus might be understandable on Josephus’ part, since the fundamental raison d’etre of the whole passage is to relate the supplanting of the High Priest Ananus by Jesus son of Damneus.24

24  R. G. Price, “The Case Against Historical Jesus” at: http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm. Price (not to be confused with Robert M. Price) is one who opts for the marginal note insertion of “called Christ”.

Such an understanding renders Josephus consistent in that he is discussing figures pertinent to the time of Ananus and the Roman governors Festus and Albinus (who are also the focus of this chapter). This makes much better sense, as Price also points out, than to imagine that Josephus suddenly identifies his James by linking him “to a person whom the Jews had supposedly killed as a common criminal some 30 years (earlier), and 60 years prior to this writing.” Price adds: “Christians argue that this was done because ‘Jesus Christ’ was so well known that it makes the passage make sense, but as we have seen, no one prior to Josephus had even written about Jesus Christ aside from some Christians, so it certainly does not seem that he was well known.” Eddy and Boyd (op.cit., p.189) seem oblivious to this when they suggest that Josephus “merely wanted to identify James by specifying his well-known brother.”

James Who?

Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that if Josephus did not write “called Christ,” he did not include any other identifying phrase for his “Jesus” at that point, one that was tossed out by an interpolator. If he had, whether “son of Damneus” or anything else which clearly precluded the idea that he was referring to Jesus Christ, it seems unlikely that any scribe would have been led to turn it into such a reference, either deliberately or by accident. It is one thing to take advantage of an ambiguity, or a silence; it is another to consciously twist one stated fact into a quite different one. (On the other hand, perhaps I am being too kind.) In the presence of a definite identifier for “Jesus” which was not “called Christ” there would have been no scope for a scribe to understand “James” as referring to the Christian James. But if he was given scope to make this assumption, why then would Josephus have provided no identification for his “Jesus”? One explanation is that he was about to, as “son of Damneus.” Or, if the entire phrase “brother of Jesus, called Christ” constituted the Christian addition, we can reasonably assume that Josephus either didn’t know anything about this James except that Ananus had executed him, or felt it was not necessary to enlarge on him further.

In either case, if we can seriously call into question the feasibility of Josephus writing “called Christ”—which we are about to do—we have no grounds for assuming that Josephus was referring to the Christian James the Just. In fact, in the absence of anything more than “the brother of Jesus,” it would be highly unlikely that he was referring to that James. The surrounding context is about Jewish figures and their Roman overseers on the Jerusalem political scene in the years leading to the War. It is difficult to believe that the Christian James would have been involved in such circles—and Josephus nowhere else presents him in that way (or any other way). Assuming that a Jerusalem church even existed at this time, the head of it would have been a sectarian outsider, unlikely to be involved in the religious establishment (much less be granted the right to wear priestly robes and enter the Holy of Holies, as alleged by Hegesippus: see below). This would surely have required Josephus to say something more explanatory about this James who moved beyond the fringes of the Jewish establishment, something by way of explanation as to who he was and why Ananus had been out to get him, and especially why other influential Jews had been so incensed by his murder. If we can judge by Paul, the new Christians were personae non gratae, subject to persecution. The High Priest’s murder of their leader in Jerusalem, for whatever reason, would more likely have been regarded with approval, or at least certainly not with such effrontery that offended citizens would successfully agitate to have the High Priest deposed. And an effrontery merely on the basis of a supposed abuse of power by Ananus, which some suggest was the reason, should have been diluted—perhaps even neutralized—by the despised sectarian status of the victim. Yet Josephus, who is elsewhere very much a detail man, provides no comment or explanation for what would have been a very odd situation. It would be an oddity even in the context of an assumed authenticity for the entire “brother of Jesus called Christ” and constitutes a good argument against that assumption.

Before leaving this point, some further questions should be raised. If we presume that Josephus James was the Christian James and was so renowned for his ‘justice,’ meaning a righteousness in faithful observance of the Jewish Law, on what basis would Ananus have accused him of violating that Law? One assumesas did later Christian embellishers of this presumptionthat it could only be on the basis of some aspect of being a Christian. We know from Paul that believers in the Christ were persecuted from early on, which must have involved a perception that they were not faithful observers of the Jewish Law. Why then would other—non-Christian—citizens, themselves “strict in observance of the Law,” come to James’ defense and go so far as to bring about the dismissal of the High Priest? Rather, the implication in the passage is that the affronted citizens are incensed at the murder of one of their own, who in their view was wrongfully accused, and moreover tried and executed in a manner which contravened the rules of the Roman occupation. (The latter was probably a convenient excuse to complain to the governor about Ananus’ actions.) Note that Josephus here does not lay any emphasis on the character of his “James,” certainly not as a paragon of virtue and faithful observance; that comes later from Christian writers who are commenting on their own James the Just and reading him into Josephus.

There are too many anomalies in this situation to allow us to cavalierly assume, regardless of the reference to Jesus, that this James is to be equated with the Christian James the Just. And there is yet one more. It is not only James who has been tried and executed, but “together with some others.” Although not clearly stated, it would seem that those others are associates of James; one would think at least that they were all accused of the same thing. (Otherwise, we seem to have a High Priest consumed with blood lust rounding up random citizens for execution.) But if James is the Christian James the Just, then those “others” are almost certainly Christian. Josephus would then be telling us of a significant pogrom against the Christian Church in Jerusalem, instigated by the High Priest no less and opposed by Jewish citizens, something that is not in the slightest witnessed to in Christian tradition or anywhere else. Even those traditions relating to the death of James the Just, as we shall see, do not square with the situation outlined by Josephus in Antiquities 20.

If, on the other hand, a different James and some like-minded others, perhaps associates, have been targeted by Ananus for political reasons, with this James being the brother of Jesus son of Damneus, the situation makes much more sense. James is identified by his brother rather than by his father because that brother Jesus figures in the story, namely as the successor to the deposed Ananus in the high priesthood, and perhaps in previous ways not stated. The fact that Jesus is given the high priesthood after Ananus’ downfall suggests a political subtext of rival factions behind the frustratingly little which Josephus tells us about the situation.

Witness to the Antiquities 20 Reference

Before pursuing this line of argument further, we need to take a look at the attestation for the Antiquities 20 reference and the traditions about James’ death. The considerations just outlined render highly dubious the portrait of James by the itinerant Christian historian Hegesippus around 160, as preserved (his works are lost) in Eusebius’ History of the Church, II, 23. According to Eusebius, Hegesippus reported that James was permitted to enter the holy sanctuary of the Temple and to wear priestly robes, this despite the fact that he had publicly declared Jesus to be the Savior and converted many Jews, and was even regarded as the object of ancient prophecies, so that “many even of the ruling class believed.” This is Christian legend and idealization a century after the fact, and none of it can be regarded as remotely reliable. The account of James’ martyrdom in the same Hegesippus passage quoted by Eusebius reaches a zenith of incredibility, with its picture of the Jewish authorities regretting the liberty they had accorded him to win over so many of the people to Jesus, and begging him to rescind his more extravagant claims before the crowds at Passover by making a speech from the height of the Temple wall. When he, like a Shakespearean Mark Antony, took the occasion to turn the tables on them and ‘praise Caesar,’ the Scribes and Pharisees threw him down from the parapet and he was stoned and clubbed to death. That speech and the following murder scene is heavily reminiscent of the Stephen martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles, the latter account and even the character of Stephen himself being dubiously historical. Either Hegesippus is modeling himself on an Acts which he had come to know when he visited Rome in the mid 2nd century, not long after that document had been concocted, or he is reflecting a legend of James the Just on which the Stephen scene in Acts was also modeled, neither one enjoying any reliable claim to history.

In any case, the account in Hegesippus can in no way be reconciled with the one in Antiquities 20. Not only is the High Priest Ananus not involved in the former, there is no formal charge and execution; James’ death is an impromptu act. In the latter there is no scene at the Temple. Scholars have suggested that the Hegesippus version is a legendary accretion on the basics in Josephus, while Eddy and Boyd (op.cit., p.189) take this marked divergence between Josephus and Christian tradition as “suggest[ing] that (the Josephan) passage is not a Christian interpolation.” But an equally likely resolution of the problem is that the account in Josephus has nothing to do with the Christian James the Just. In what survives of Hegesippus, he makes no mention of Josephus or what was contained in him.

A Curiosity in Jerome

But someone else does. By the time we get to Jerome in the late 4th century, the ‘record’ has become positively anarchic. In Chapter 2 of his De Viris Illustribus (Illustrious Men), Jerome witnesses to a mix of Josephus, Antiquities 20, Eusebius and the legends of Hegesippus. After recounting the above-mentioned dubious Hegesippian portrait of James, Jerome declares that:

“Josephus also in the 20th book of his Antiquities…mention(s) that on the death of Festus who reigned over Judea, Albinus was sent by Nero as his successor. Before he had reached his province, Ananias the high priest…assembled a council and publicly tried to force James to deny that Christ is the son of God. When he refused Ananius ordered him to be stoned. Cast down from a pinnacle of the temple, his legs broken, but still half alive, raising his hands to heaven he said, ‘Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Then struck on the head by the club of a fuller, such a club as fullers are accustomed to wring out garments with—he died.”

Is Jerome saying that his copy of Antiquities 20 contained all this information? (It was derived, in great part, from the same Hegesippus passage quoted by Eusebius, as well as from preceding comments by Eusebius which may have been derived from elsewhere in Hegesippus.) Is he saying that it was inserted into the midst of Josephus’ original passage on Ananus and the death of “James and some others”? It would seem so, for he immediately goes on:

“This same Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great sanctity and reputation among the people that the downfall of Jerusalem was believed to be on account of his death.”

This is another witness to the so-called “lost reference” which we are about to discuss, although the implication of Jerome’s words is that it was not contained in the same Antiquities 20 passage. But the wording here makes it seem that Jerome witnesses to a separate line of manuscripts of Josephus which, post-Eusebius, have suffered a more lengthy insertion into Antiquities 20, one which not only identified its James with the Christian James the Just, but decided to draw on Hegesippus to recount the circumstances of his ‘trial’ and death. Jerome, of course, is seemingly paraphrasing and not offering a direct quote. But to think that Josephus could say “tried to force James to deny that Christ is the son of God” or anything like it, or that this could reflect the content of some original version by Josephus which yet did not survive into our extant copies, would be foolhardy. (Note that Jerome does not mention the “brother of Jesus, called Christ” phrase in his discussion, although there is no good reason to doubt that it was there, unless the interpolator of this expanded passage happened to drop it.)

James and the Fall of Jerusalem

The implication in the last line of Eusebius’ quote of Hegesippus is that this murder of James led directly to the War: “Immediately after this Vespasian began to besiege them.” There was in fact an interim of several years, if the death of James is to be attributed to the year 62, although this may well have been based on nothing other than the traditional reading of the Josephan passage with its chronological markers; we certainly know of no other basis. Hegesippus, as quoted by Eusebius, provides no historical signposts for dating the event other than that final line. This, however, is not to be trusted as a disinterested statement. Eusebius’ comments immediately after indicate that there was a longstanding view held by Christians that the Jews of Josephus’ time “felt that this was why his [James’] martyrdom was immediately followed by the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them for no other reason than the wicked crime of which he had been the victim” (H.E. II, 23). Hegesippus, apparently anxious to present this same connection (and he is the first recorded Christian writer to do so), telescoped the years between the death of James and the event of the War in which Jerusalem was destroyed.

Eusebius, to clinch this view, recounts after his quote of Hegesippus that even Josephus, the Jewish historian, was of the same mind and proceeds to quote him: “These things happened to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, called Christ, for the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.”

It is a source of great frustration to scholars that Eusebius does not identify the location of this quote, for it is not to be found in any extant work of Josephus. But he is not the first to present it in this manner, for Origen a century earlier had said the same thing, indirectly referring to Josephus’ words in three different passages, similarly without identifying the location:

Commentary on Matthew 10:17 – “And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus called Christ [ton adelphon Iēsou tou legomenou Christou]. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great, and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.”

Contra Celsum I, 47: “Now this writer [Josephus], although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple…says…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 [adelphos Iēsou tou legomenou Christou], the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.”

Contra Celsum II, 13: “…Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus called Christ [ton adelphon Iēsou tou legomenou Christou]…”

In the latter two passages, Origen also provides the qualification that Josephus should have said, not that it was on account of the murder of James, but rather on account of the execution of Jesus, the Son of God. (He lays out his argument for this in Contra Celsum IV, 22.) Eusebius does not echo that qualification here, though the revised view was well established by his own time and he in fact puts it forward elsewhere (as in H.E. II, 5 and 6). The earliest Christian record of this revised view is found in Melito of Sardis in the latter part of the 2nd century, followed by Tertullian (Answer to the Jews, 13) and Hippolytus in the early 3rd century, and finally in Origen toward the middle of the century, although as we have seen he was also concerned to amend the older view which he had supposedly encountered in Josephus.

Scholars have wondered whether Eusebius himself was quoting from an actual manuscript of Josephus, or whether he was taking the thought from the words of Origen and turning them into a direct quote, perhaps not knowing where they were supposed to be located, since Origen does not specify their location either. (In Commentary on Matthew Origen seems to imply that they are to be found in the Antiquities, though some have suggested Jewish War.) Indeed, the key phrase of twelve Greek words which in Eusebius is presented as a direct quote is identical to the phrase presented by Origen in Contra Celsum I, 47 as an indirect quote, making it likely that Eusebius was simply drawing on Origen.

So far, we have seen an allusion to James’ death in Hegesippus in the mid 2nd century as a cause of the War, though with no mention of Josephus. In the first half of the 3rd century, Origen three times makes direct reference to James’ murder and specifies that Josephus had somewhere said that on account of this act God punished the Jews by the destruction of Jerusalem. As one can note, in all three of these references Origen uses a phrase similar to the Antiquities 20 line, referring to James as “brother of Jesus, called Christ,” though he is not presenting this as a direct quote. Another century later, as just noted, Eusebius “quotes” Josephus in History of the Church II, 23, 20:

“And indeed Josephus has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says: ‘These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was brother of Jesus, called Christ [adelphos Iēsou tou legomenou Christou]. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.”

Thus far, all references to the phrase in bold have appeared in the context of an unknown passage of Josephus, identified as such by those two Christian writers. That alleged passage was devoted specifically to the idea that the death of James was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem. There is no suggestion by either writer that this reference appeared in any context relating to that which we find in the extant Antiquities 20, namely the condemnation of Ananus and the removal of him from his High Priest position. Nor in the latter passage is there any description of its James as a particularly just man, nor any mention of anyone believing that the death of James was the cause of the fall of Jerusalem. Eusebius, in fact, right after supposedly quoting Josephus on this matter, goes on to say: “And the same writer [Josephus] also records his [James’] death in Antiquities Book 20,” clearly implying that in his mind the two passages were distinct, two separate accounts. Eusebius then proceeds to quote the Antiquities 20 passage on Ananus, with its James and Jesus reference, more or less as we know it and as it survives in extant texts.

The fact that Eusebius identifies the location of the latter but not the former is further indication that he is relying on Origen and did not know what location Origen was drawing on. In that case, his assumption that the extant Antiquities 20 passage was distinct from it would have been just that, an assumption, but it would certainly have been justified since he found nothing like Origen’s words in the latter passage. There have even been suggestions that Origen himself did not know the location and was repeating a kind of ‘patristic rumor.’ Another suggestion is that Origen was confusing Hegesippus with Josephus. Hegesippus, in his preserved fragments, nowhere states that Josephus regarded the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for James’ murder; but it is possible that somewhere he had done so, that Origen had read it and either relied on it as being true, or misremembered it as coming directly from a Josephan text. Such mistakes were not uncommon, due to the difficulty of consulting long manuscripts with nothing like modern indexes.25

25 Louis H. Feldman, in his translation of the Antiquities for the Loeb Classical Library (v.9, p.497, n.‘e’) suggests that “Origen and Eusebius may be thinking of Josephus’ statement about the divine vengeance for the murder of John the Baptist by Herod” in Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2 / 116. But here the punishment was the destruction of Herod’s army, not of Jerusalem. It is hard to think that either Origen or Eusebius, let alone both of them, would so badly misremember and twist a statement which was so different to what they are presenting. In general, Origen shows that he is well-versed in Josephus’ writings (with the exception of “Vita,”), so it is difficult, despite the not uncommon view that Origen could have been mistaken, to imagine him making such a blunder as to report something that he had not actually read in Josephus and remembered correctly.

Another thing to note is that Origen, in this unknown passage, consistently presents the elements of the phrase referring to James and Jesus in a backward order to that of Antiquities 20. Including Eusebius, all those texts read:

“…dared to do against James the brother of Jesus, called Christ…”

“…as a vengeance for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, called Christ…”

“…on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, called Christ…”

“…as a vengeance for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, called Christ…”

The word order in these passages is a natural one, with James being the first to be named, and the reference to Jesus being a tacked-on identification for James. But it is theoretically possible to reverse things, to read:

“…dared to do against the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James…”

“…as a vengeance for the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James the Just…”

“…on account, as Josephus says, of the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James the Just…”

“…as a vengeance for the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James the Just…”

The unnatural and awkward character of the latter word order is evident. And yet this is the order we find in the Antiquities 20 passage, to wit:

“…and brought before (the Sanhedrin) the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James by name…”

They all work grammatically, but the versions with James first are far more straightforward and sensible, particularly given a Jesus encumbered with “(the one) called Christ.” This strengthens the argument made earlier that the word order in Antiquities 20 is not the most natural and suggests that a Christian interpolator is giving Jesus pride of place. If “brother of Jesus, called Christ” was a marginal gloss, and the scribe later inserting it chose to place it before James rather than after, this again suggests a pride of place motive. On the alternative that Josephus had already written “brother of Jesus”—perhaps referring to his “Jesus son of Damneus”—then the interpolator, from scratch or inserting a marginal gloss, was forced to put it where it now appears, with no thought of pride of place, unless he also chose at the same time to reverse Josephus’ word order.

Neither Origen nor Eusebius can be implying a location in Antiquities 20. If Origen was referring to an actual Josephan passage, it was somewhere else, now lost. We saw above that Jerome also called attention to the “lost reference” in De Viris Illustribus 2, but that he too did not seem to be implying it was in Antiquities 20—although perhaps one cannot press that conclusion too far based on such few words; it is always possible that Jerome has garbled everything together. One wonders if Jerome was another victim of faulty memory in envisioning any such reference—or even in what he implies was found in Antiquities 20 in regard to James’ death. Yet it seems difficult to believe that we would have three different Christian commentators suffering from the same memory disorder. On the other hand, Jerome could simply have been relying on either Eusebius or Origen for what he says about Josephus James-Jerusalem connection.26

26 As noted above, in neither his description of Antiquities 20 nor his allusion to the lost reference does Jerome mention the phrase “the brother of Jesus, called Christ,” though we are assuming it was probably there, since he is post-Eusebius; but because we cannot actually draw on it, and because he postdates Eusebius, he will not figure in the present discussion. We could also remind ourselves here that yet another Christian commentator of the late 4th century, John Chrysostom, suggested that he read in Josephus that the fall of Jerusalem was due to the death of John the Baptist, seemingly making for yet another manuscript line in which Christian scribes were busy contradicting each other.

It follows, then, that neither Origen nor Eusebius, in consistently using the same wording to describe this unknown passage in Josephus, can be ultimately deriving it from Antiquities 20, since the latter contains no hint of the James-Jerusalem connection, and hardly could have at any time (see below). We are thus faced with the striking coincidence that Origen, with Eusebius following him, have used precisely the same words to refer to a phrase in an unknown passage of Josephus (real or imagined) which is identical to the one found in Antiquities 20. If we have a true lost reference, then either Josephus had described Jesus the same way in two separate places, or we have a Christian interpolation about the James-Jerusalem reference (this being the more compelling alternative, as it is virtually impossible that Josephus was the one who wrote it) which happens to use the identical phrase to describe Jesus as is found in the allegedly authentic reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20.

Is this likely to be a coincidence? Undoubtedly not. So what choices do we face to explain this non-coincidence? It is admittedly within the bounds of feasibility that a Christian interpolator of the lost reference could have borrowed a genuine phrase of Josephus from Antiquities 20. But it is also feasible that an interpolator of the Antiquities 20 phrase copied that phrase from the earlier interpolator of the lost reference, or even from Origen’s report of the lost reference. Which alternative is preferable?

Testimony to Antiquities 20

There are a number of reasons to tip the scales in the direction of the latter, in the form of arguments that Josephus is unlikely to have written the reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20, and these we will look at. But I will start with an observation which seems to have been universally overlooked, and is the punch line I have been working toward under the present topic of “witness” to the second Jesus passage in Josephus. In discussion and debate, all those references to the James-Jerusalem connection are generally lumped together with the Antiquities 20 passage because of the commonality of the “brother of Jesus, called Christ” phrase. But this turns a blind eye to the fact that those other references are in no way supportive of the Antiquities 20 passage. They do not constitute a witness to that passage. The commonality of the phrase does not give us such a thing, since they are two independent passages and there are other explanations available for the commonality. And let us reiterate that the lost reference, if it existed, cannot have been from a different rendering, now lost, of the Antiquities 20 passage, as some have presumed. It would have been virtually impossible for a Christian interpolator to insert the James-Jerusalem connection, the idea that the destruction of the Jewish state was a consequence of the murder of James, into the passage on Ananus. (We could claim that it would have blatantly interrupted the narrative, but Jerome has given us reason to think that at least one interpolator was not bothered by that sort of consideration.) The main reason is that the whole passage presents the murder of James as the work of an overbearing High Priest, at once denounced by leading Jewish citizens, resulting in a punishment meted out to the one responsible. A scribe could hardly have made Josephus turn around and declare in the same breath that “the Jews had slain” James the Just and brought upon themselves such a horrific consequence as the leveling of Jerusalem and the Temple itself.

So when do we first come upon some witness in Christian literature to the actual Jesus reference in Antiquities 20? As we have seen, it is in Eusebius’ History of the Church. Right after Eusebius has parroted Origen in claiming that Josephus held the view that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to the murder of James, he goes on to quote the entire passage on Ananus as it stands today, identifying its location in Antiquities 20. It serves to provide the reader with “another recounting” of the death of James.

Eusebius himself is thus the earliest witness we have to the Antiquities 20 passage containing “the brother of Jesus, called Christ.” No earlier knowledge of the passage as it now stands can be identified. Since Origen has taken note of a separate, lost reference (even if he might only have misremembered or imagined it), one could expect him to also mention, as Eusebius does, the Antiquities 20 reference, at least somewhere along the line. He does not. Nor does anyone else before Eusebius.

Thus we find ourselves in the same situation as in regard to the Testimonium. We have no witness to the present form of the Antiquities 20 passage before Eusebius. Such a silence may not be as striking as the silence on the Testimonium, but it is nonetheless there. We saw good reason to consider the possibility that Eusebius was the inventor of the Testimonium. If, relying on Origen, Eusebius believed that Josephus somewhere had linked the death of James to the destruction of Jerusalem, it could have occurred to him that the Antiquities 20 passage about Ananus’ execution of “James by name” ought to be made clearer as another Josephan reference to the death of the Christian James, since he no doubt assumed that this figure was indeed James the Just, especially if Josephus had included “brother of Jesus” as a descriptive of James. The insertion of a few words to accomplish that would have been simple.

We would thus be left with no coincidence to be explained in the similar wording of two different passages. Eusebius would merely have reproduced the language he was familiar with from Origen and used it in his insertion in the Antiquities 20 passage.

Eusebian authorship of the Antiquities 20 reference is only one option among a few, from the innocent insertion of a marginal gloss to deliberate doctoring of the passage by someone earlier than Eusebius, someone who may have been inspired by Origen or by an earlier interpolator of the lost reference. It is not likely to have been the same scribe responsible for the lost reference, since in that case we should have expected Origen to note it. In presenting further arguments against Josephan authenticity, no particular one of these options need be adopted a priori.

Messiah Who?

This point was examined earlier in regard to the Testimonium. Josephus nowhere uses the term “Christ” (Christos) except in the two Jesus passages. If we have good reason to think that he would have avoided referring to the Messiah in regard to the Testimonium, there is no less reason to think that he would have avoided it in the Ananus passage. Its appearance in the latter, being so cursory, seems to suggest that he had previously explained the term to his readers. But if its presence in the Testimonium is dubious, this makes its occurrence in Antiquities 20 even more suspicious. Even were we to consider the suggestion that he could have had a less committal reference in the earlier chapter, such as “he was believed to be the Messiah,” this still leaves the Antiquities 20 reference—indeed, them both—hanging out to dry, for neither one constitutes an explanation for gentile readers as to what exactly the Messiah was and why this figure of Jesus was so regarded. If Josephus were merely looking for some quick way to identify this Jesus for his readers (one of many by that name in his chronicle), he would have had a much easier, and less charged, way to do so. He would simply have had to say, “the one who was crucified by Pilate.” This is a point which it is claimed did appear in the original passage of Antiquities 18, one that would have been easily remembered by the reader. If Josephus had written the “authentic” Testimonium, with no reference to the Messiah, the point about Pilate would have been the inevitable choice.

On the other hand, if the phrase in Antiquities 20 is a Christian interpolation, there would have been no concern in the scribe’s mind about a missing explanation, since his Christian readers, for whom he was doctoring the text, would have fully understood. They would also have fully understood the reason for James’ death, something Josephus also fails to tell the reader.

But there is another overriding factor not mentioned earlier which should clearly have precluded Josephus from attaching the term Messiah in any way to the figure of Jesus, here or in the Testimonium. We know from Jewish War (VI, 5, 4 / 312-13) that Josephus regarded and pronounced that the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy about a coming ruler had occurred in the person of Vespasian. Any association of this prophecy with another figure would have jarred with that pronouncement. Certainly, if that pronouncement were “He was the Messiah,” there would have been a direct contradiction, something whoever was responsible for the Testimonium as it stands failed to recognize. But even if the association were an uncommitted one, such as “he was believed to be the Messiah,” Josephus might well have thought that there could still be a danger of creating confusion in the reader’s mind. And specifically in Antiquities 20, the words “called Messiah” would have been anything but a precise indication that Josephus did not himself accept the designation, much less something that would be guaranteed to be seen as derogatory. In fact, the words “called Messiah” could feasibly be taken as a tacit acknowledgement. Thus it seems highly unlikely that Josephus would have risked introducing the statement at all, or at least without some clear indication that he did not, could not, and that Jews never would, regard Jesus as the Messiah. Or to specify who it was that regarded him as such, since it was not the great bulk of his fellow countrymen.

It might also be noted that, in recounting the ‘messianic’ agitators of the 1st century, Judas the Galilean, Theudas and the Egyptian, Josephus does not inform the reader that their followers regarded such men as the promised Messiah. (Josephus usually describes them as calling themselves prophets.) We are not sure that they in fact did, since we have no other records of them, but it is entirely possible. Some modern scholars have interpreted Jesus as being precisely that sort of figure, a Zealot-like revolutionary who promised miraculous victories with the aid of God, and those scholars have no difficulty in presuming that he was thought to be the Messiah by his followers. If Josephus avoided attaching the term to such as Judas and Theudas, even by repute, why would he be willing to do so in the case of Jesus—a figure on whom he spent notably fewer words than on either of those worthies?

We might also note in this connection that when Josephus wrote Jewish War and declared Vespasian the object of all those Jewish prophecies, he failed to note that a prominent figure in the recent past had been accorded that honor by many people in a movement which by the 70s was supposedly growing and making an impact, even enjoying the honor of being Nero’s scapegoat for the great fire at Rome. One might think that he would feel compelled to discredit previous claimants to the position he was in the act of bestowing on Vespasian.

A Christian Phrase

The phrase itself, tou legomenou Christou, called Christ, is suspicious. It is essentially identical to the one which concludes Matthew 1:16: ho legomenos Christos. The same phrase appears in John 4:25, and here we get the impression that the term itself may have been taken over by Christians from traditional parlance. The Samaritan woman at the well says to Jesus: “I know that Messiah [Messias] is coming, he who is called Christ [ho legomenos Christos]; when he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Here the phrase “he who is called Christ” is redundant, since the Messiah has already been referred to. (And a Samaritan woman, presumably Aramaic-speaking, would only have had a single word to use for both references; “Christ” is entirely Greek.) Its insertion by John suggests that the phrase had some currency in his circles, leading him to include it in his artificial dialogue.

Curiously, the phrase is also placed by Matthew in the mouth of Pilate (27:17 and 22): “Whom do you want me to release to you: Barabbas or Jesus, called Christ?”—even though his source, Mark, had Pilate refer to Jesus as “the king of the Jews.” It would seem that the phrase had a special appeal to the author of Matthew. These appearances in early Christian writings identify the phrase as one in use by Christians. Thus it could have been chosen by a Christian copyist inserting a phrase into Josephus, especially under the influence of its appearance in Matthew, the most popular Gospel from the mid-second century on. It is also at that time that we encounter another occurrence of it in Justin: “the one called Christ among us” (ton par’ hēmin legomenon Christon) in his First Apology 30. It would seem to have been a thoroughly Christian phrase.

The frequent translation of “tou legomenou Christou” as “the so-called Christ,” with its skeptical and derogatory overtone, is in no way necessary, and is in fact belied by the usage of the phrase in those Christian writings just looked at, where it obviously cannot have such a connotation. The word legomenos is found in many other places in the New Testament without any implied derogation. Those using the term in their translations of Josephus betray a preconceived bias in favor of his authorship.

Would a Christian be willing to interpolate “brother of Jesus” in view of the established concept of Jesus’ virgin birth by the latter 2nd century? But James had been called a “brother” in the sense of sibling from early on, right from the Gospel of Mark (even Paul’s “brother of the Lord” was reinterpreted that way), and it was left to later generations to rationalize this in whatever way they could. An interpolator would be unlikely to feel any qualm about continuing that tradition. The standard phrase may have become “brother of the Lord,” but this could hardly have been maintained in the insertion into Antiquities 20, making Josephus say “the brother of the Lord, called Christ.”  (Although, as noted earlier by Frank Zindler, “the brother of the Lord” seems to have existed in Photius’ copy, but with no second phrase attached.27) 

27  I am not suggesting that this is what Josephus could have originally written. Quite apart from arguments that he is not speaking of James the Just, it is unlikely that he would have been familiar with such a title for the Christian James and even less likely that he would have chosen to use it, since it would be completely meaningless and misleading to any reader. What Photius’ copy does indicate is that this is virtually certain to be a Christian insertion, another doctoring of the Antiquities 20 text to make his James the Christian one. The phrase may have begun as a marginal gloss by one scribe to voice that assumption using the familiar phrase “brother of the Lord” in its sibling understanding (any time after the mid 2nd century), and then later it was inserted into the text by another scribe. All this would have happened within a manuscript line that was independent of the one which now contains the extant version of the passage. It was a line which, as Photius indicates by his silence, contained no Testimonium or any other direct reference to Jesus, and it subsequently died out. 

 Thus we are led by many pathways to the conclusion that in the famous “brother of Jesus, called Christ,” at least the second part, and quite possibly the whole of the phrase, is not the product of Josephus. Similar to the case of the Testimonium, it is often argued that if a Christian scribe were responsible for the Antiquities 20 reference, he would have taken the opportunity to offer more about Jesus than a single phrase. But this is not a compelling argument. An interpolator would have recognized the limitations he faced. In a tightly packed account of the death of James (whoever he was) and its repercussions on Ananus, there would have been no scope for an extended digression about Jesus. It would have destroyed the passage. If the argument has any merit at all, it would simply lead us to give greater weight to the option of a marginal gloss inserted by someone who thought it belonged in the text.28

28  When they first quote the core of the Antiquities 20 passage (p.186), Eddy and Boyd betray their evangelical roots with this passage:

“If this passage [in Antiquities 20] is authentic, it not only confirms the existence of Jesus but also the New Testament’s claim that James was the brother of Jesus. This latter point is especially significant because Paul mentions James, the brother of the Lord, as a contemporary of his (Gal. 1:19). This means that Paul would have viewed Jesus as a recent contemporary, thereby refuting the Christ myth theory that Paul thought of Jesus as a mythological figure who lived in the distant past….”

(Of course, it means nothing of the sort, since it cannot be demonstrated—and certainly hasn’t by Eddy and Boyd—that Paul, in using the term “brother of the Lord” means a sibling, or that it can be equated with Josephus’ alleged “brother of Jesus.”)

“…If authentic [an ‘if’ that is anything but established], the passage forces the question of how Jesus could have arisen to the status of the embodiment of Yahweh by means of legendary accretion while his brother was still alive—indeed, with his brother becoming one of his followers! This is not at all easy to explain, especially in a first-century Palestinian Jewish context. It forces us to consider strongly the possibility that Jesus was in fact the kind of figure presented in the Gospels.”

This kind of argument is on a par with, “Why would all the apostles die for a lie?” or “How could Christianity have arisen unless something like the Resurrection truly happened?” or “Jesus had to be either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” As in the latter case, there is always another explanation (here, the fourth option: Legend). Such claims can only be arrived at through adopting all sorts of assumptions and preconceptions without proof. All the apostles were martyred!even in the absence of any actual evidence for this claim, which is based on later Church tradition (read: invention). Only through the Resurrection!—which ignores the logical (since they take all the evidence into account) scenarios and alternative paradigms which mythicism puts forward. In the above quote, Eddy and Boyd do more of the same. How could Jesus have immediately attained the cosmic status of divine Son with all the titles of God among monotheistic Jews, especially while his own brother was still alive, one who had even become a follower? Right there, Eddy and Boyd have acknowledged several challenging impediments to the idea: that any man could so attain that status and especially overnight, that he could do so in a Jewish milieu, that a close family member growing up with him could possibly turn to regarding his brother as the embodiment of the very God of Abraham. The only explanation? Jesus really was as the Gospels portray him!

Why not consider more reasonable alternatives? No Jesus attained the cosmic status of Paul’s Christ almost immediately after his death, but rather began as a spiritual divine Son. No Jews like Paul turned a man into God, but have had later developments read back into them. The James Paul refers to was not a sibling of the Jesus being worshiped, but a believer in a mythical Savior. Rather than try to preserve the integrity of the Gospels by overriding all these considerations and many more like them, a simple reorientation of attitude would suffice to make the whole convoluted, unsolvable and maddening mess that is early Christianity from the orthodox point of view evaporate into thin air, to be replaced by a more coherent, realistic and ultimately satisfying picture of the evolution of humanity’s great invention, both a wonder and a curse: religion.

The “Lost Reference” to James and Jerusalem

As considered above, there is probably no way we can be certain that a ‘lost reference’ actually existed, although one argument in its favor may lie in the fact that Origen refers to it three times with precisely the same wording of the Jesus phrase, which could reflect his memory of encountering it in the text, or even having it before him. As well, there is another minor reference to it not previously noted. In the De Viris Illustribus of Jerome, which we looked at earlier for its quotation of the Testimonium, the same chapter (13) has this statement:

“In the eighteenth [decimo octavo: a prominent online translation mistakenly renders this “eighth”] book of his Antiquities he most openly acknowledges that Christ was slain by the Pharisees on account of the greatness of his miracles, that John the Baptist was truly a prophet, and that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the murder of James the apostle.”

Jerome’s references to Jesus and John the Baptist represent the two extant passages on those figures in Antiquities 18, but what of his reference to the murder of James and the fall of Jerusalem? Does this indicate that the lost reference was also in Antiquities 18? It is hard to see just where it would have fitted into that book or why an interpolator would have chosen it. Has Jerome somehow ‘deduced’ this from what Origen and Eusebius have said about it? Is he working from faulty memory? Perhaps all we can say is that Jerome provides us with yet another witness to the chaos of opinion about what Josephus had said and where he had said it—and to the chaos of Christian doctoring of just about anything they could get their hands on. (If nothing else, we might take Jerome’s remark as some indication that the reference to James and Jerusalem was never part of Antiquities 20.)

If we assume the presence of the lost reference somewhere in Josephus, could this statement about the reason for the fall of Jerusalem have been authentic to Josephus, or was it necessarily a Christian insertion? If we consider Josephus the author, he would have been giving either his personal opinion or a current Jewish opinion. Both have been asserted by various scholars. But there are problems with either alternative.

First let us deal one last time with a possible contradiction. Whether the lost reference was real or imagined, Origen quite clearly thought Josephus had written it. Why, then, in the same breath in two of those passages in which Origen states that Jesus, in Josephus’ words, was “called Christ” did he also say that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ? One explanation is that he could have realized that such language in Josephus’ mouth did not necessarily entail his own belief in the statement. Moreover, with Josephus declaring outright that the subject of the Jewish prophecies was Vespasian, such a non-commitment in the “called Christ” phrase would be confirmed.

Origen brings up the lost reference to criticize Josephus for not saying that it was because of the death of Jesus, rather than of James, that God visited upon the Jews the destruction of Jerusalem. But more than half a century later than Josephus, as we have seen, the Christian Hegesippus apparently witnessed to the same thing. As preserved in Eusebius, he intimates a Christian view of his time that it was indeed the death of James the Just which had prompted God’s punishment on the Jews.

Now, if Josephus had provided witness to a Jewish tradition that the murder of James had resulted in the fall of Jerusalem, why would Christians have subsequently taken over such a view, rather than react as Origen later did and change it to the death of Jesus? I’ll suggest an answer to that shortly; but first we might ask, why would any Jew have adopted such a view in the first place? If James was a prominent Christian figure and brother of a supposed subversive who had been crucified, why would non-Christian Jews give him such an honor as to believe that God had wreaked upon them the greatest calamity in Jewish history simply because of his death? Moreover, this would imply that Christianity, and by extension Jesus’ own status, was supported by God. Would Jews have believed such a thing? Hardly.

Would Josephus himself have subscribed to such a view? He would no more accept the implications just stated than would Jews in general. Moreover, the blanket phrase “the Jews slew him” is too uncompromising. As noted earlier, it would contradict Josephus’ own account in Antiquities 20 with its very limited responsibility for the death of James. He would hardly have envisioned God punishing the entire Jewish nation for a murder he himself portrays as the action of an upstart high priest, a man whom other Jews promptly condemned and caused to be removed. Moreover, had Josephus subscribed to such a tradition as is found in the lost reference, he would surely have provided his readers with a fuller, more laudatory account of the “one named James” over whose death God had destroyed the Jewish state and leveled his own Temple to the ground.

In fact, Josephus provides ample evidence of his own view of the causes of the calamity. Throughout the Antiquities he condemns the entire revolutionary movement beginning with Judas the Galilean (in 6 CE) for laying “the foundations of our future miseries” (Ant. XVIII, 1, 1 / 1). In Jewish War (IV, 5, 2 / 314f) he focuses on the murder of Ananus the High Priest by the Zealots as the ‘beginning of the capture of the city,’ linking this with the idea that God was now cooperating in the destruction of city and Temple as a means of purifying them from the defilement caused by actions such as this. Steve Mason (op.cit., p.186) stresses Josephus’ “thesis that violation of the Jewish laws leads to disaster,” and that “lawlessness among the aristocracy…brought destruction on Jerusalem.” Mason perceives a balancing act on Josephus’ part, between acknowledging Roman military might and its inevitable victory, and God’s determination to see the crimes and blasphemies of the Zealot rabble punished. In the face of those two forces, Jerusalem was bound to fall.29 Such a view of the matter is one of far greater scope and complexity than the thought of one man’s execution being avenged, a man Josephus has failed to address beyond a few words, a man who played no part in the lead-up to the War—and a Christian besides.

29 As quoted by Eddy and Boyd (p.185, n.61), Paul Spilsbury says: “[W]hile Josephus certainly assimilated himself to the inevitabilities of Roman rule, ‘he was not simply the imperial ‘stooge’ he is sometimes caricatured to have been.’ Rather, Josephus offered his fellow Jews ‘a coherent and workable theory about the legitimacy of Roman rule in the light of a biblical reading of the providence of God.’ (“Flavius Josephus on the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” JTS 54 (2003): 21).” 

We must conclude that the lost reference, with its view that God punished the Jews for the murder of James the Just, is a Christian product and an interpolation into a manuscript of Josephus. Hegesippus, as noted, implies a view of this sort among Christians in the mid-second century. But there is a very telling corollary to this. Why did those mid-second century Christians not impute the calamity to God’s punishment for the death of Jesus instead of James, since to subsequent writers, including Origen, this seemed obvious?

The explanation is simple. The need to interpret the destruction of Jerusalem would have developed early, no doubt well before Hegesippus. At such a time, an historical Jesus and historical crucifixion had not yet been invented, or at least would not have been widely disseminated under the influence of an evolving understanding of the Gospels. Thus the idea that the destruction of Jerusalem was a consequence of the execution of Jesus would not yet have arisen in the broader Christian world. Instead, James the Just, head of a prominent sect in Jerusalem which believed in a spiritual Christ, supposedly murdered by the Jewish high priest just before the War, would have been the natural, and perhaps only candidate available. And although the idea of an historical Jesus was well under way by Hegesippus’ time, the force of the original tradition about James’ death might still have been operating, to be supplanted by the concept of Jesus’ role only subsequently. As we have noted, it was not long after Hegesippus that we see the changeover, beginning with Melito.

This implies that the ‘lost reference’ must have been inserted into manuscripts of Josephus at a relatively early period, certainly within the first half of the second century. Much later than that, and the copyist would almost certainly have reflected Origen’s view—that the fall of Jerusalem was due to the death of Jesus, not of James.

Why was the “lost reference” lost? Some suggest it may have been removed because of Origen’s complaint, but in that case it is much more likely that it would have been changed to reflect that complaint. That is, we would find the reference saying that it was on account of the death of Jesus, rather than of James, that Jerusalem fell. However, the better explanation would be that the “lost reference,” being an interpolation, was made only in certain manuscript lines (perhaps only one), probably of Jewish War and probably in the east, and that these lines died out. Once the reference’s imitation (if that’s what it was) became interpolated into Antiquities 20, it would have undergone its own fate, in this case surviving and spreading westward into all copies of the latter document. If that second interpolation was Eusebius product, he would have been, as noted earlier, in the best position to ensure its propagation.

In view of all the arguments against the likelihood of authenticity for the reference in Antiquities 20, the reliability of this second pillar of the Josephan witness to Jesus collapses along with the first.