Jesus OriginsDiscovering the original Christianity
Josephus’ Impossible Testimonium
Josephus can’t have written the so-called Flavian Testimonium. And yet he must have. That is the paradoxical conclusion of an unbiased review of the historical evidence.
The Testimonium is the famous passage in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews in which the Jewish historian gives an account of a miracle worker called Jesus, “the Christ”. Probably more has been written on this one passage than anything of a similar size from antiquity, and it continues to fascinate today. To those who want to show that Jesus existed as a flesh and blood man, it is a contemporary witness from a non-Christian. To the mythicists who believe Jesus never existed, it is a pious forgery inserted by the Christian scribes who copied and preserved Josephus’ works.
In this post we look at the conflicting evidence around the Testimonium using the analysis from my latest book, “The Gospel of Domitilla”. The conclusions are:
- Josephus was a pious Jew who would have been opposed to Christianity and he was writing to please a Roman audience who despised Christians. The Testimonium, which is strongly positive about Jesus, is not something he would have written.
- There is a link between the Testimonium and the Emmaus passage in the Gospel of Luke. The closeness in the structure of these two passages disproves the consensus idea that Josephus wrote a passage sceptical about Jesus that was then revised by Christian scribes.
- We are left with the theory that a later Christian scribe interpolated the whole Testimonium into Josephus’ Antiquities much later. But it very difficult to see how this could have given the close structural similarity with Luke’s Emmaus passage.
- The later reference in Antiquities to James the brother of Jesus, called the Christ, is probably original to Josephus. This would effectively rule out the theory that the Testimonium is a later interpolation by Christian scribes.
- The evidence points to the Roman historian Tacitus having a copy of the Testimonium c.120 AD, which means that the testimonium must have been original to the Antiquities of the Jews.
We are forced to the paradoxical conclusion that Josephus can’t have included the Testimonium in the Antiquities but must have. In the next post, we will consider the resolution of this paradox.
Who was Josephus?
In The Gospel of Domitilla, I tell the story of Josephus, the Jewish War and his relationship with the Flavians. It is essential to understand that Josephus is an unreliable narrator. He was a trickster, conman, and habitual liar. As a narcissistic personality he always placed his own interests above the truth.
Josephus rose to prominence during the Jewish war—the rebellion in Judea against Roman rule. He was appointed as the military commander of Galilee, the fertile hill country around the Sea of Galilee. It was a valuable province settled mainly by Jews but cut off from Judea by hostile Samaritan and Syrian territory.
Josephus was no ordinary general. He had no prior military experience and was initially appointed by the anti-rebel priests to go to Galilee as part of a three-man tax-collecting commission. By adroit political manoeuvring and double-dealing, he took control after his two colleagues returned to Jerusalem. Josephus then gathered together a force of mercenaries and secured the military appointment from Jerusalem. But he faced repeated accusations of corruption, and a large armed force was even sent from Jerusalem to arrest or kill him. On two occasions he narrowly escaped execution as a thief. His many enemies viewed him as a corrupt individual who profiteered from the war.
Vespasian was the Roman general who Nero appointed to end the revolt. His son, Titus, accompanied him to Judea as his second in command. The Roman force consisted of several legions and auxiliary troops from the local client kings, including Herod Agrippa. Vespasian started his reconquest with Galilee. In the Jewish War, Josephus claimed to have commanded a trained and disciplined army of 100,000, modelled on the Roman legions. In reality, Josephus’ “army” was a rag-tag militia of a few thousand mercenaries and peasants who ran away when confronted with Vespasian’s vastly superior force.
Josephus could see the inevitable end of the conflict and pleaded with Jerusalem to negotiate a peace deal. But Jerusalem was awash with revolutionary fervour, and his pleas were ignored. In desperation, Josephus slipped into the city of Jotapata just before Vespasian besieged it. His role in the defence of Jotapata was the one truly heroic episode in Josephus’ military career. And he was only a hero because the townspeople would not allow him to flee. Despite Josephus’ extraordinary efforts, Jotapata eventually fell to the Romans. He found himself trapped in a cave with many of the city elite. The Romans were eager to capture him alive and began to negotiate his surrender. Josephus wanted to save his life, but the others in the cave would not permit him to surrender. In the most notorious episode of his career, he tricked an entire cave full of people into committing suicide before slipping out with one other survivor to give himself up to the Romans.
Vespasian intended to send him to Nero for trial and inevitable execution. But Josephus saved his skin with an audacious “prophecy” that Vespasian was the Messiah, the Christ, who would emerge from Judea to rule the world. Anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures would know this prophecy was nonsense, but the Romans were ignorant of Jewish religion and easily fooled.
When Nero committed suicide and Vespasian emerged as one of the leading contenders to be emperor, the prophecy looked like it was coming true. It was very useful to Vespasian, and Josephus was freed and honoured. Vespasian eventually emerged as the winner of the civil wars that followed Nero’s death and returned to Rome, leaving Titus, accompanied by Josephus, to finish the Jewish War. Josephus became a friend of the future emperor, watching by his side as the Roman forces besieged Jerusalem, brought down the walls, burnt the temple and massacred most of the population, many by crucifixion.
The Jews detested Josephus as a traitor and it was impossible for him to remain in Judea. So he accepted an invitation to travel with Titus to Rome in 71 AD. He would spend the rest of his life in Rome, where he reinvented himself as a historian. Josephus wrote his book “The Jewish War” as the definitive account of the war. Josephus struggled to write in Greek and used scribes, highly trained slaves, for his Greek compositions. He always knew how to please those in power, and Vespasian and Titus were delighted with the book.
Josephus settled down to enjoy the patronage of the emperor Vespasian. When Vespasian died in 79 AD to be succeeded by Titus, Josephus’ position became even stronger. But Titus died after just two years, and his brother Domitian became Emperor.
Domitian’s primary motivation was hatred of Titus, who had overshadowed him for his whole life. As a client and friend of Titus, Josephus was now in peril. It did not help that Domitian disapproved of the Jews and wanted a return to traditional Roman religion. However, Domitian was also very protective of the Flavian family’s military reputation, based, as it was, on the Jewish war. Josephus’ was the chief chronicler of that success. So he was allowed to continue his work as a historian in Rome but no longer enjoyed the special patronage of the emperor.
Under Domitian, Josephus began his most ambitious work, the Antiquities of the Jews, which was published in 93/4 AD. This brings us to Josephus’ most controversial passage: the Testimonium Flavian, so-called after the Roman name, Josephus Flavius, which he adopted when he became a Flavian client. The Testimonium is the earliest account of Jesus from a non-Christian source. It is found in book eighteen of the Antiquities and is often put forward as the best external evidence for the existence of Jesus:
About this time, there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man; for he was a doer of surprising deeds, a teacher of such people who receive the truth gladly. He drew to himself many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was Christ. And when Pilate, hearing him accused by the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. On the third day he appeared to them alive again, for the prophets of God had foretold these and many other marvellous things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, has not disappeared to this day. (Josephus, Antiquities 18:63-64)
The Testimonium is extremely odd. It is remarkably positive about Jesus. But Josephus must have despised Christianity. He was a former Pharisee and a temple priest who saw himself as a good Jew. Josephus was certainly no Christian. According to Christians, Jesus was the culmination of Jewish religion and history. Josephus wrote a massive book about the history and religion of the Jews, and, apart from the passage above and one brief, later reference, there is no hint of Christianity.
It is suspicious that Josephus calls Jesus the Christ when he went out of his way to avoid using the word. The word never appears in the Jewish War, although Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah were a major cause of that war. Josephus had to keep very quiet on this subject. He did not want the Romans probing too deeply into his prophecy that Vespasian was the Messiah. Even the word Christ, “the anointed one,” was dangerous. The prophesied ruler was supposed to be the anointed king of Israel from the line of King David. How could Vespasian, a Roman citizen from Renate in Italy, possibly be the Christ?
When Josephus wrote the Antiquities, Vespasian and Titus were dead, but he still had to be careful. His interpretation of the prophecies had become part of the mythology of the dynasty, and Domitian would not have had patience with anything that cast doubts upon Flavian legitimacy.
Scholars have explained this paradox by theorising that Josephus wrote something sceptical about Jesus, which later Christian scribes revised to make it more reverential. Another view, popular among the “mythicists” who believe that Jesus did not exist, is that the entire passage is a forgery. However, later in the Antiquities there is a mention of James, “the brother of Jesus called Christ,” which supports the idea that Josephus had written about Jesus earlier—and had called him Christ, or a supposed Christ.
Scholars have even reconstructed the original passage that Josephus was supposed to have written. It provides excellent evidence for Jesus’ existence from a sceptical Jew. The only problem is that this supposed “evidence” is entirely speculative and hypothetical. Put another way, the best evidence for Jesus’ existence does not itself exist.
Still, the reconstruction explained the paradox of why Josephus appeared to have written a positive passage on Jesus—he did not, but Christian scribes edited his words. This “cosy consensus” ruled almost unchallenged until a most inconvenient piece of evidence emerged.
The cosy consensus is destroyed
In 1995, a researcher called Gary Goldberg made a startling discovery. He made a computer search to identify any similar passages to the Testimonium and found a most unexpected match in the Gospel of Luke.
The relevant passage comes from Luke’s resurrection account. After Jesus’ crucifixion, two of his followers were going along the road to Emmaus when Jesus, taking the form of a stranger, came up and walked beside them. The stranger asks them what they are talking about, and they tell him about Jesus of Nazareth and the events that have occurred. The stranger enlightens them about the meaning of the scriptures, and when they reach their destination, they invite him in for a meal. They sit down together, and he blesses the bread and hands it to them. At that moment, he appears in his true form, and they recognise him as Jesus before he vanishes.
Goldberg’s analysis showed a close similarity between the conversation on the road and Josephus’ Testimonium. My comparison below is based mainly on Goldberg and shows how the two narratives have an identical structure (J=Josephus; L=Luke 24:19-26):
J: About this time there lived Jesus…
L: Concerning Jesus of Nazareth…
J: …a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man…
L: …who was a man, a prophet…
J: …for he was a doer of surprising deeds…
L: …mighty in deed…
J: …a teacher of such people who receive the truth gladly. He drew to himself many of the Jews and many of the Greeks.
L: …and words before God and all the people.
[J: He was the Christ.]
J: And when Pilate, upon hearing him accused…
L: He was delivered up…
J: …by the principal men amongst us…
L: …by the chief priests and rulers of us…
J: …had condemned him to the cross…
L: …to the judgment of death and they crucified him.
J: …those that loved him at the first did not forsake him.
L: We, however, were hoping he was the one to redeem Israel.
J: Having the third day…
L: We are now having the third day from when these things came to pass…
J: …he appeared to them alive again…
L: At this point Luke has a flashback to the women going to the tomb, finding it empty, and seeing the angels who told them Jesus was alive. This is followed by the words: Then he (Jesus) said to them…
J: …for the prophets of God had foretold these (things)…
L: O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets had spoken. Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and enter into his glory?
J: …and many other marvellous things concerning him.
L: And beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things in the scriptures concerning himself.
Goldberg excluded Luke’s flashback to the women at the tomb in his analysis, but it fits nicely at the point where Josephus says, “he appears to them alive again.” Note that the Testimonium statement “He was the Christ” has no match in Luke.
In total, nineteen points of similarity were identified between the two passages, all occurring in the correct order in the Greek. As a control, Goldberg compared other similar passages to the Testimonium. A brief description of Jesus by Justin Martyr had at most four points of agreement and many disagreements. Some Acts passages were closer, as would be expected as they were also written by the author of Luke, but still had only eight points of agreement. The probability of nineteen points arising in the same order between two passages by chance is close to zero. This structural similarity shows that the two passages must be related.
Another link is the phrase translated above into literal but clumsy English as “having the third day.” It is an unusual and ambiguous construction, although not unnatural in Greek. In the New Testament, the usual phrase is “on the third day,” and “having the third day” only appears here. It is also a very unexpected and unique construction for Josephus to use. Finding this unusual form of the phrase at the same point in both passages clearly indicates that they are linked.
Another unusual phase for Josephus is “by the principal men amongst us.” Josephus takes great care to distance himself from the action of the narrative: in the Jewish War, he even refers to “Josephus” using the third person. If Josephus had written the Testimonium, we would expect “the principal men among the Jews.” But like Luke, it has “us.”
The discovery of an amazingly close link to the conversation on the road to Emmaus was fatal to the “cosy consensus” which envisaged the Testimonium emerging through a two-step process:
- Josephus writes something neutral/critical about Jesus.
- A century or more later, Christian scribes edit this into something much more positive.
Such a two-stage process could not have given a nineteen-point similarity of structure, all in the correct order. Josephus’ original passage was supposedly independent of any Christian source. Even if Christian scribes were influenced by the Gospel of Luke, they would have had to completely rewrite Josephus from scratch to end up with such a close agreement in structure.
Goldberg’s analysis destroyed the cosy consensus—but you would not know this from scholars’ responses. The cosy consensus is still the majority view even today. The same phenomenon happens time and again. When a new piece of evidence disproves the consensus theory, the tendency is not to abandon the theory but to disregard the evidence. A scientist finds it difficult to ignore contrary experimental results, but scholars are experts at minimising, marginalising and ignoring inconvenient evidence. After all, most of their esteemed colleagues believe in the consensus—they have “peer proof” on their side.
Goldberg’s theory: a third source
Goldberg offered his own theory: both Luke and Josephus used a third source. This would explain the close correspondence but has its own difficulties.
Most obviously, it requires the existence of a third document for which there is no evidence other than the mutual resemblance of two texts. More seriously, it does not address the central issue. Why would Josephus include such a positive view of Jesus in the Antiquities? Once again, we would have to assume that a later Christian decided to revise Josephus’ words extensively. This introduces an additional layer of complexity into the explanation. And would not these revisions disrupt the correspondence between the texts?
It is also mystifying why the author of Luke should use the hypothetical third source for the conversation on the road. We can gain an idea of the contents from the overlap between the Testimonium and the Emmaus story: it would have been no more than a brief summary and contained nothing new to the author of Luke, who had just written a whole gospel about Jesus. Why then copy this source rather than write the short passage themself? Also, the conversation on the road reads as an integral part of the story rather than an insertion from elsewhere.
Another problem comes from agreements between the Testimonium and the Gospel of Luke beyond the Emmaus story. For example, the phrase “He drew to himself many of the Jews and many of the Greeks” does not occur in the Emmaus story. And yet it is one of the author of Luke’s favourite phrases:
Acts 14:1: “…a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.”
Acts 18:4: “…persuaded both Jews and Greeks.”
Acts 19:10; “… all those who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.”
Acts 19:17: “… and this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks…”
Acts 20:21: “… testifying fully both to Jews and Greeks … “
Similarly, the Testimonium calls the followers of Jesus “Christians”, a word that first appears in Christian literature in Acts:
Acts 11:26: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”
Acts 26:28: “You almost persuade me to be a Christian”
It is a Latin construction and was quite possibly invented by the author of Luke. It does not appear in the Emmaus story. All of this indicates some connection between the author of Luke and Josephus that goes beyond the potential use of a third source by both.
Is the Testimonium an interpolation?
And so we come to what may seem the only remaining explanation, that the Testimonium was an addition to the Antiquities made by later Christian scribes. This is the solution beloved by mythicists, which is perhaps why mainstream scholars have discounted it.
If we accept the close link between Luke and the Testimonium, it may seem the obvious solution. And yet, it is not without difficulties.
Goldberg himself rejected the interpolation theory for a very good reason. The Emmaus story is striking: Jesus has been crucified, apparently disproving his claim to be the Messiah. Two of his dispirited disciples trudge along a road when a stranger joins them. He talks to them about the true meaning of the scriptures, and they invite him to sup at their house. As they sit around the table, the stranger offers them bread, and at that instant, they see he is Jesus before he disappears. It is a very memorable story. However, the Testimonium is linked to the unmemorable conversation on the road and omits everything most significant in the story.
It is difficult to see how a scribe starting from the Emmaus story would end up with the Testimonium. Surely they would have included something about this miraculous resurrection experience?
James, brother of Jesus
Two pieces of evidence confirm that the Testimonium was in early copies of the Antiquities of the Jews and is not an interpolation. The first is a later passage from Book 20, in which Josephus gives an account of the stoning of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” at the instigation of the high priest, Ananus. If this reference to Jesus is original to Josephus, it would strongly support the idea that Josephus wrote something about him earlier. In any case, the James reference seems to supply independent evidence for Jesus’ existence.
For both reasons, the mythicists have taken aim at this passage. The best theory is that promoted by Richard Carrier, that it originally read “James, the brother of Jesus”. The significance of this is that Ananus was removed as high priest and replaced by a man called Jesus:
“King Agrippa, because of Ananus’ action, deposed him from the high priesthood which he had held for three months and replaced him with Jesus, the son of Damnaeus.”
The theory goes that Jesus, the son of Damnaeus, was rewarded with the high priesthood as compensation for the unjust execution of his brother James. However, a later Christian scribe thought that “James the brother of Jesus” meant the Christian James whom Paul called “the brother of the Lord”. So he added the helpful comment, “who was called the Christ”.
It is a nice theory that I accepted for a long time. But for reasons set out in the Gospel of Domitilla, I now conclude that the James passage is original to Josephus in its entirety.
One problem with the “Jesus, the son of Damnaeus” theory is that it requires an unlikely series of coincidences. The first coincidence is that there would have to be two brothers, James and Jesus, the sons of Damnaeus with the same names as the Christian James and Jesus. Since the names are common, this is not an insuperable difficulty.
A more significant issue is that it would require Josephus to have written “James, the brother of Jesus” without telling us who this Jesus was until several lines later. Josephus’ regular practice was to introduce a new Jewish character as “X son of Y”. So we would expect the first brother to be called “James, the son of Damnaeus” and Jesus to be introduced as something like “Jesus, the son of Damnaeus and brother of James”. In reality, there are always variations, and Josephus could have written “James, the brother of Jesus” before telling us who this Jesus was. But it is unlikely.
The theory depends upon a string of coincidences:
- There happens to be a pair of Jewish brothers called James and Jesus, with one of them, James, put to death by the Jewish authorities.
- Josephus just happens to identify the first brother, James, in an unusual way.
- Much later, a Christian scribe misunderstands Josephus and makes an interpolation at just this point.
We will give the theory the benefit of the doubt on the first point. But if we take the probability of the second point as 1 in 100 and the third point as 1 in 10, there is only a 1 in 1000 chance of the conditions for the theory being met.
Of course, it remains possible that the entire line about James is a later Christian interpolation. But you can justify any theory if you simply assume that scribes forged and inserted evidence in this way. It is always suspicious when a theory depends on such “ad hoc” alterations of the evidence.
(Unfortunately, there is no space to include a full discussion of the James reference here. I may make it the subject of a future post.)
The second piece of evidence is Tacitus’s famous account of the Christians. It is a short passage from the Annals about Nero’s persecutions of “a people hated for their shameful offences whom the common people call Christians [or Chrestians].” Tacitus explains how this strange eastern sect originated:
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Tacitus, Annals 15:44)
The surviving manuscript originally had Chrestians (chrestiani) before a scribe changed the “e” to an “i” to give the more familiar Christians (christiani). The spelling with an “e” may be a mistake by a previous copyist, or it may go back to Tacitus; “Chrestians” was an alternative for the similar-sounding “Christians” in the early centuries. The misspelling may even be deliberate, with Tacitus implying that the common people call them Chrestians out of ignorance.
Tacitus had no direct knowledge of Judea and was writing c. 120. There is nothing in the passage that could not have come from the gospels, which had been in circulation for over forty years. Some apologists have argued that Tacitus would have consulted imperial archives for the official record of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is unlikely that such administrative records even existed after ninety years. And even more unlikely that Tacitus would be able to locate the correct record from among the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crucified criminals. He does not even seem to know Jesus’ name.
The information about Jesus is nothing more than a minor aside in a story about Nero, and a Roman historian would not waste days of effort on a parenthesis. Roman historians mostly used the works of other historians as their sources. It was not the standard practice to acknowledge these sources, and most other Roman historical works are lost, so Tacitus’ extensive use of other historians has been hidden. If Tacitus were looking for information about events in Judea in the recent past, then the only historian interested in that area was Flavius Josephus. So rather than spending days searching through old archive records, Tacitus would have consulted the scrolls of Josephus’ Antiquities on the shelves of his own library.
Everything that Tacitus said about Jesus matches something in the Testimonium:
Tacitus: “…whom the common people called Christians [or Chrestians]. Christus, from whom the name had its origin…”
Josephus: “He was Christ. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, has not disappeared to this day.”
Tacitus: “… suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate…”
Josephus: “And when Pilate…had condemned him to the cross…”
(Tiberius is not mentioned in the Testimonium itself, but he is in the wider context of the Pilate passages in the Antiquities. For example, 18:89 makes it clear that Tiberius was emperor while Pilate was procurator.)
Tacitus: “…and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out…”
Josephus: “…those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. On the third day he appeared to them alive again, for the prophets of God had foretold these and many other marvellous things concerning him.”
Tacitus: “…not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
Josephus: “He drew to himself many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. (Note – Greeks/Hellenists would have included the Romans.) And the tribe of Christians…has not disappeared to this day.”
Tacitus is a conservative Roman aristocrat who despises both Jews and Christians. He casts the pro-Christian Testimonium into something much more cynical and critical. In fact, he shows the same anti-Christian tone that we would have expected Josephus to employ.
Tacitus’ use of the Antiquities would explain an uncharacteristic mistake. He calls Pilate a procurator, but the governors of minor territories like Judea only became procurators after Claudius. Under Tiberius, they were prefects, which is Pilate’s title on the “Pilate Stone” inscription. To the Roman elite, such titles were important.
However, Josephus writes in Greek and does not use the Latin titles procurator or prefect. He uses epitropos (governor/administrator) and hegemon (leader), and he employs them interchangeably for procurators and prefects. In the Jewish War, he calls Pilate an epitropos, but in the Antiquities, he calls him a hegemon. Tacitus could not have known Pilate’s correct title from Josephus and fell into the error of calling him by the familiar title “procurator”, forgetting this only applied to Judea from Claudius’ reign.
There is further evidence that Tacitus did use Josephus’ book 18. The two stories that follow the Testimonium (and which are actually a secret anti-Christian satire) are also linked to something in Tacitus’ Annals:
Antiquities 18:63-64 (The Testimonium)
used by Tacitus in:
Annals 15:44 (description of Christians and their beliefs)
Antiquities 18:65-80 (the story of Paulina, involving prostitution among Roman noblewomen and the expulsion of Egyptian sects from Rome)
used by Tacitus in:
Annals 2:85 (the story of a Roman noblewoman, Vistilia, who was a prostitute, and the expulsion of Egyptian sects from Rome).
Antiquities 18:81-84: (The story of Fulvia, involving an expulsion of Jews from Rome with 4000 sent on military service)
used by Tacitus in:
Annals 2:85 (Expulsion of Jews from Rome, 4000 sent on military service).
So not only could everything that Tacitus says about Jesus come from the Testimonium, but he also uses closely related passages elsewhere in his Annals. This demonstrates that Tacitus was familiar with the Testimonium in the context of Book 18 of the Antiquities. But if Tacitus’ copy of the Antiquities had the Testimonium, then it could not have been interpolated by Christians or anyone else. It must be original to the Antiquities.
Was the Testimonium unknown to Origen?
Many who regard the Testimonium as a forgery blame Eusebius of Caesarea, the church father who lived at the time of Constantine. The passage appeared in a Christian text for the first time in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical history and was not mentioned by Origen, who was also in Caesarea seventy years earlier. One theory is that Eusebius forged it for the Ecclesiastical history and then arranged for its insertion into the Antiquities.
It is a far-fetched idea. Forgers are typically anonymous. They are not authors publishing under their own name and with a reputation to defend. The forgery would involve adding a new passage to a book that had already been in circulation for over two hundred years. This would surely be detected and condemned by both pagans and Christians. And how exactly would Eusebius have been able to get his forgery into all copies of the Antiquities? And if he had gone to all this trouble and taken all these risks, why does he attach so little importance to the passage in the Ecclesiastic history? He barely comments on it and is more interested in proving the historical existence of John the Baptist.
The strongest evidence offered to support the non-existence of the Testimonium comes from the early church father, Origen. He wrote that Josephus “was not believing in Jesus as Christ” in connection with a passage about John the Baptist, which occurs only fifty lines after the Testimonium. Origen even gives the correct book number—eighteen. As the Testimonium explicitly states that Jesus was the Christ, does this prove it was not in Origen’s copy of the Antiquities?
It seems like a strong case—until we look at Origen’s actual words. Origen’s statement that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ is made in conjunction with another claim—that Josephus said the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was divine punishment for James’ death. Origen makes this claim three times: twice in Against Celsius and once in his commentary on Matthew. But Josephus said no such thing.
Not only does Origen make a blatantly false statement about what Josephus said about James. He does not repeat anything that Josephus actually did say. So Origen could not have had book twenty of the Antiquities and probably did not have book eighteen either.
In the Gospel of Domitilla, I show that Origen must have based his statements on a secondary Christian source. The author of this source has analysed Josephus’ comments on John the Baptist, James, and Ananus and concluded that the destruction of Jerusalem was punishment for the death of James. Origen misunderstood this source as meaning Josephus said this directly, which he never did. Origen is amazed because he knows that Josephus did not think that Jesus was the Christ, something that would be obvious to anyone who knew that Josephus had hailed Vespasian as the Messiah.
Origen did not have a copy of the Antiquities, and it is unsurprising that he failed to mention the Testimonium. He is using a secondary source for his John passage, a source that includes the reference to book eighteen of the Antiquities. This source does not mention the Testimonium because it is irrelevant to the author’s argument that the destruction of Jerusalem came about because of the death of James.
Conclusion – the impossible Testimonium
We have seen the contradictory evidence around this fascinating passage:
- Josephus was a pious Jew attempting to please his Roman audience: it makes no sense that he would have written a positive statement about Christ in the Testimonium.
- The Testimonium is remarkably close in structure to the conversation on the road to Emmaus from Luke. And there are other links between the Testimonium and the Emmaus passage, as well as the broader writings of the author of Luke.
- There is no evidence for the existence of a third source used by both Josephus and the author of Luke. Nor would such a third source explain why Josephus included a positive passage about Christianity.
- The idea that the whole passage is an interpolation by a later scribe who was very familiar with Luke and Acts also has difficulties. Why copy the unmemorable conversation on the road and not the more spectacular elements of the Emmaus story?
- In book twenty, Josephus wrote about “James, brother of Jesus called the Christ,” which suggests that he had written about Jesus earlier. Explanations of this passage as an interpolation rely on an unlikely sequence of events.
- Tacitus wrote about Nero’s persecution of the Christians in c.120. He generally used other historians as his unacknowledged sources, and everything he says about Christians can be linked back to the Testimonium passage in the Antiquities.
- Tacitus also appears to have used the stories that followed the Testimonium in two other places in his Annals, which supports the idea that he had a copy of Book eighteen of the Antiquities.
We are led to the conclusion that Josephus cannot be the author of the Testimonium and yet he must have included the pro-Christian passage in the Jewish Antiquities. In the next post we will look at how the resolution of this paradox involves Domitilla.