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Josephus on Jesus
from Josephus - The Essential Works
by Paul Maier

For Christians, books 18 through 20 of the Antiquities are far and away the most important sections in all of Josephus' writings, since they provide a rich background for the entire New Testament era. Happily, they are also the most authoritative chapters in the Antiquities since at long last Josephus is either an eyewitness of direct contemporary of the events he is reporting. His paragraphs on John the Baptist show Jesus' forerunner from a fresh vantage point, while his portrayal of crucial events in the career of Pontius Pilate help explain that governor's pressured performance at the trial of Jesus. In the case of Jesus' brother James, he even provides crucial addenda to the New Testatment, which does not tell us how James died. Josephus does!

His two celebrated references to Jesus - Antiquities 18:63 and 20:200 - have provoked an enormous quantity of scholarly literature. The constitute the largest block of first-century evidence for Jesus outside of biblical or Christian sources, and may well be the reason that the vast works of Josephus survived manuscript transmission across the centuries almost intact when other great works, like those of Nicolas of Damascus, where totally lost. But are the Jesus references authentic?

Scholars fall into three main camps on the first and longer paragraph on Jesus (18:63) which occurs amid events during Pilate's administration: 1) it is entirely authentic; 2) it is entirely a Christian forgery; or 3) it contains Christian interpolations in what was Josephus' authentic material about Jesus. The first option, held by very few, would seem hopeless: no Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without converting to Christianity, and Josephus did not convert. The second position, popular in late nineteenth-century skeptical scholarship, has some minor current support. A large majority of scholars today, however, share the third position (favored in these pages), particularly in view of the newly-discovered Agapian text which shows no signs of interpolation.

Josephus must have mentioned Jesus in authentic core material at 18:63 since this passage is present in all Greek manuscripts of Josephus, and the Agapian version accords well with his vocabulary and grammar elsewhere. Moreover, Jesus is portrayed as a "wise man" [sophos aner], a phrase not used by Christians but employed by Josephus for such Old Testament figures as David and Solomon. Furthermore, his claim that Jesus won over "many of the Greeks" is not substantiated in the New Testament, and thus hardly a Christian interpolation but rather something that Josephus would have noted in his own day. Finally, the fact that the second reference to Jesus at 20:200 merely calls him the Christos without further explanation implies that a previous fuller identification had already taken place.

Josephus' second reference to Jesus in connection with the death of his half-brother James (20:200) shows no tampering whatever and is present in all Josephus manuscripts. Had there been Christian interpolation, more material would doubtless have been presented than this brief, passing notice. James would likely have been wreathed in laudatory language and styled "the brother of the Lord," as the New Testament defines him, rather than, as Josephus, "the brother of Jesus." Nor could the New Testatment have served as Josephus' source since it provides no detail on James' death. For Josephus to further define Jesus as the one "who was called the Christos" was both credible and necessary in view of the twenty other Jesuses he cites in his works. In fact, the very high priest who succeeded Ananus, who instigated the death of James, was Jesus, son of Damnaeus. Accordingly, most scholars concur with ranking Josephus authority Louis H. Feldman in his notation in the Loeb edition of Josephus: "...few have doubted the genuineness of the passage [20:200] on James" (Louis H. Feldman, tr., Josephus, IX [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965] 496).

The weight of evidence, then, strongly suggests that Josephus mentioned Jesus in both passages. He did so in a manner totally congruent with the New Testatment portrait of Jesus, and his description, from the vantage point of a non-Christian, seems remarkably fair, particularly in view of his known proclivity of roasting false messiahs as the sorts who misled the people and brought on the Romans.

Taken from Josephus: The Essential Works, copyright 1994. Used by permission of Kregal Publications Grand Rapids, MI 49501. You can order Josephus: The Essential Works for a total of $24 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.

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