Part 4 Did the writings of Josephus support the historical Jesus

Josephus wrote a longer section about Jesus in his book Antiquities.  Some controversy surrounds this passage.  We read from Antiquities:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not extinct at this day[1].”

This is an incredible passage.  There is consensus from both Jewish and Christian scholars that the passage as a whole is authentic, although most believe there are some copyists’ additions [my underlines].

What do I mean when I say additions?  The individuals that copied the work of Josephus seem to have added some phrases that Josephus, a Jewish writer, would never have said.  We begin our analysis with the first line:  “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man.”  This was not a phrase normally used by Christians so it is probably authentic.  However, the next phrase, “if it be lawful to call him a man,” sounds like an addition.  It seems to point to the Christian belief Jesus was also God.  We move onto the next section; “for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.”  This fits well with vocabulary found in the other writings of Josephus.  It seems to be authentic. Yet, the next phrase appears to be an outside addition; “He was [the] Christ.”  It is highly unlikely Josephus would have called Jesus the Messiah, especially since we know earlier he wrote that his followers considered him to be the Christ.  Remember Josephus was a Jew and as such would have denied Jesus was the Messiah.  The next section: “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him.”  Here we find information Josephus would report.  Now it looks fairly obvious this last phrase was an addition because it was unlikely Josephus, the Jew, believed in the resurrection.  “For he appeared to them alive again the third day. ” The final segment appears to be authentic; “as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not extinct at this day.”

Now if we eliminate those 3 instances I pointed out (underlined) as probably additions this is still a powerful source of information.  What do we learn about Jesus from Josephus?

  1. He was an historical figure and not a myth
  2. He was a wise teacher who had a large and lasting following; they continued to follow him after his death.
  3. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate at the instigation of some Jewish leaders.

That’s an incredible amount of information we know about the Jesus of history from Josephus, a Jewish Roman historian.  Now some may say if Jesus was so important why wasn’t more written about him?  What do you think was important to ancient historians?  They characteristically loved to write about war, rebels, politics, kings and rulers, and the struggles of Rome.  This is why more was written about John the Baptist than Jesus because Josephus saw him as a threat to Rome; whereas Jesus was not.  Jesus didn’t even object to taxes being paid to Rome.  Now in hindsight it is easy for us to see Josephus missed a great opportunity.  We can second guess Josephus 2,000 years later.

As I played high school baseball I competed against a rival shortstop that I knew was a good player but in my mind was nothing out of the ordinary.  In fact I thought I was better ballplayer.  After playing college baseball I became a middle school PE teacher and never played a day of minor league baseball.  This shortstop went on to become a third baseman for the Kansas City Royals.  His name was George Brett.  I would never have dreamed he’d become one of the greatest players in baseball history. It never entered my mind.  Josephus the historian had no idea this historical figure named Jesus would be the most influential man in the history of the world.  He had no way of anticipating his impact, which accounts for the small amount of words written about him.

Nevertheless these references to Jesus by Josephus are significant.  Archeology has verified the accuracy of Josephus’ writings when he wrote on other historical subjects.  He is considered to be a reliable historian and his mentioning Jesus and giving us some details is extremely important to establishing the historical Jesus[2].

Go to part 5 here


[1] Josephus, “Complete Works of Josephus” Book 18 chapter 3 section 3 “The Antiquities of the Jews.”

[2] Strobel, Lee, “The Case for Christ,” Zondervan Publ. 1998, p. 81

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