When I was an undergrad student studying Bible and theology at a Christian college, I had an assignment where I was supposed to gather up historical evidence outside of the Bible that supported the historical authenticity of the Gospels. Well, it didn’t take long before I came across the Testimonium Flavianum.1 If you aren’t familiar with this, it is a section of text out of the Antiquities of the Jews, which was written by the Romano-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. Here’s what it says:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
What?! That’s awesome, I thought. Here we have an ancient first-century historian talking about Jesus and saying stuff like, “He was the Christ,” and after his crucifixion he was “restored to life” and appeared to his followers. To make it all the more awesome, Josephus wasn’t even a Christian! The historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection was so evident that even a nonbeliever had to admit its facticity. Haha! Win for team Jesus! Ten points to Christianity!
Well… sorta, but not so much.
It turns out that most scholars don’t think that this statement from Josephus is authentic, meaning that he didn’t actually write it. It was put into his work later by Christian redactors. And it’s not that these scholars are old curmudgeonly atheists who want to discredit great evidence for Christianity. There’s actually good reasons to question whether or not Josephus actually wrote these words.
For starters, there is about a thousand years between when Josephus originally wrote his Antiquities of the Jews (approx. 93 CE) and when the earliest manuscript of it that we have was written, sometime in the 11th century CE. That’s plenty of time for Christians to stick a little propaganda into Josephus’ text. Also, the nature of the Testimonium Flavianum doesn’t naturally fit with its surrounding context, since it kind of breaks up the flow of Josephus’ indictments against Pilate and the Jewish leaders. More noticeably, Josephus seems to be saying a lot of things that are uncharacteristic for a non-Christian Jew. Moreover, when Josephus writes essentially this same section in one of his other works, Jewish Wars, he makes absolutely no mention of Jesus. To make matters worse, for the first three centuries, no Christian authors ever mention the Testimonium Flavianum, even though writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen were familiar with Josephus’ Antiquities. In fact, Origen actually made a point to mention that Josephus was not a believer in Jesus as the Messiah.2
As you can imagine, learning all of this was a little disheartening to my poor little academic heart. There went a pretty awesome trump card that I could have played in a debate over the historicity of the gospel. Thankfully, however, all was not lost.
As it turns out, if you isolate the parts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are clearly Christian interpolations and remove them from the text, you’re still left with a pretty compelling chunk of literature. The obvious Christian redactions are (1) the suggestion of Jesus’ divinity, “if indeed one ought to call him a man”; (2) the claim that Jesus “was the Christ”; and (3) the mention of Jesus rising from the dead on “the third day.” Take those out of the text, and this is what you get:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. 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 had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.3
So, no mention of the resurrection, and certainly no confession of Jesus’ messiahship. Still, this is a very clear reference to the same Jesus of Nazareth that the Gospel authors wrote about, which essentially flies in the face of some more radical claims that Jesus was a mythical hero made up by early Christians as part of their religious legend. Furthermore, by maintaining a reference to Jesus at this point in Josephus’ Antiquities, we can still make sense of a later passage that describes how Ananus, the Jewish high priest, condemned “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”4 Without a previous mention of Jesus, the leader of the tribe of Christians, this passage that seeks to situate James by reference to his brother Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Anyhow, I don’t have a great call to action for you. Just know that the Testimonium Flavianum doesn’t prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. But it does provide pretty conclusive evidence for the historicity of Jesus himself.5
So… there’s that.
1: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3.
4: Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1.
5: As much as I would like everyone to think that I am smart enough to put all of this research together myself, the truth is that the majority of what I know about this subject came to me from dudes much smarter than me. For a more extensive treatment of this topic, see Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics), 185-89.