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Josephus on Jesus: A Response to Some Common Objections

In an earlier article, we briefly looked at the testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus on Jesus.

Today, we will look in more detail at some objections and possible responses. The Antiquities of Josephus are a history of the major events from the Beginning of Creation to the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus near the end tells us that he wrote in A.D. 93, when he was 56 years old.

Josephus is thought by some modern scholars to have some relation to the Gospel of St. Luke in his historical works. Some say (1) Josephus used St. Luke, which is probable. (2) Others claim that St. Luke used Josephus, which is almost impossible. (3) Others say they both used a common source. We will note that Josephus either using (1) St. Luke directly or (2) relying on a common source, now lost, as the Evangelist did, greatly adds to the historical credibility of the latter.

On Josephus, on three points, there is widespread agreement: (1) Josephus describes the life, preaching, and martyrdom of St. John the Baptist (around A.D. 32, one year before Christ, as the Gospels also relate) under King Herod (see Ant. Book. XVIII, Chap. 5). (2) Josephus describes St. James the Apostle being sentenced to death around 30 years later (around A.D. 61) (Ant. Book. XX. Chap. 9) (3) Josephus also describes St. James as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” (ibid.). Several scholars argue that this short description in Book 20 presupposes an earlier reference to Jesus.

Against the hypothesis of interpolation at a later date, (1) we have the text of Josephus cited and cross-referenced in five independent authors in just the first 500 years from Our Lord. (2) We have at least 15 other authors in the next 1,000 years — i.e., up to around 1500 A.D. (authenticity was first questioned by Joseph Scaliger, a 16th-century Protestant, critiqued for his approach to historical criticism). (3) The manuscript tradition itself makes any attempted interpolation easily discoverable (by comparison with other manuscripts) or virtually impossible (because all must then be changed).

Here is another Saint, Isidore of Pelusium. St. Isidore, the Scholar of Chrysostom, Lib. IV, Ep. 325:

There was one Josephus, a Jew of the greatest reputation, and one that was zealous of the law ; one also that paraphrased the Old Testament with truth, and acted valiantly for the Jews, and had shown that their settlement was nobler than can be described by words. Now since he made their interest give place to truth, for he would not support the opinion of impious men, I think it necessary to set down his words. What then does he say? “Now there was about that 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 received 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 among us, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for He appeared to them alive again the third day, for the divine prophets had foretold these, and a vast number of other wonderful things concerning Him; and the tribe of Christians, so named after Him, are not extinct at this day”. Now I cannot but wonder greatly at this man’s love of truth in many things but chiefly where he says, “Jesus was a teacher of men who received the truth with pleasure.”

We have also the testimony of Ecclesiastical Historian Sozomen: Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 1 (around 440 A.D.):

But if any be ignorant of these facts it is not difficult to know them by reading the sacred books. Josephus, the son of Matthias, also who was a priest, and was most distinguished among Jews and Romans, may be regarded as a noteworthy witness to the truth concerning Christ; for he hesitates to call Him a man since He wrought marvelous works, and was a teacher of truthful doctrines, but openly calls him Christ; that He was condemned to the death of the cross, and appeared alive again the third day. Nor was Josephus ignorant of numberless other wonderful predictions uttered beforehand by the holy prophets concerning Christ. He further testifies that Christ brought over many to Himself both Greeks and Jews, who continued to love Him, and that the people named after Him had not become extinct. It appears to me that in narrating these things, he all but proclaims that Christ, by comparison of works, is God. As if struck by the miracle, he ran, somehow, a middle course, assailing in no way those who believed in Jesus, but rather agreeing with them.

It is extremely significant, as St. Isidore and Sozomen point out, that Josephus does not calumniate the Christians, as he easily could have if he wanted to. Because of having described (1) St. John the Baptist, (2) King Herod, (3) Pontius Pilate, and (4) St. James of Jerusalem in such detail, it was only to be expected that he would say something about Our Lord Jesus and the first-century Christians, given that he describes the events in first-century Jerusalem so much. Thus, it is truly striking that Josephus says nothing like “Their leader didn’t perform the miracles they claim He did,” but rather makes a kind of begrudging admission that the events Christians reported that Christ performed did take place.

To recap, we have seen five authorities within the first 500 years A.D.: the saints, namely, (1) St. Ambrose, (2) St. Jerome, (3) St. Isidore and the ecclesiastical historians, (4) Bishop Eusebius, and (5) Sozomen. A review of the referenced work will show over 15 more in the first 1,500 years.

There are three possibilities: (1) complete interpolation, (2) partial interpolation, (3) no interpolation. Let’s seriously consider which possibility is best supported by evidence.

Question/Objection I: Isn’t it probable that the reference to Jesus is completely interpolated?

No. Is it credible that any supposed later interpolator, even assuming he had a motive to interpolate (at a time when no one questioned the historicity of Jesus), would have been able to do so?

Consider the mammoth task before this hypothetical individual: he would have to, first, find and interpolate identically each and every one of the Fathers in which the citation from Josephus is used and, next, find and interpolate each and every one of the texts of Josephus in all extant manuscripts.

Even that’s only the beginning of it. He would then have to master the style of Josephus and use such expressions as “wise man,” “tribe of Christians,” etc. that scholars today know to be Josephan and then he would also have to master the style of those Fathers, and then cunningly somehow interpolate it into all of their citations of Josephus, and somehow adapt the surrounding arguments.

Let’s suppose there is a 10% probability any given text of the earlier Fathers could have been successfully interpolated in all existing copies. P (Int) = 0.1. What then would be the probability that over five saints and Church historians could have had their writings altered? It would be 0.00001.

Question/Objection II: Is it probable that the reference to Jesus is only partially interpolated?

It is less improbable, but still improbable. In this case, too, the above difficulty is not overcome.

If we say the interpolation need not have taken place in the first 500 years, but took place after between 500 and 1500 A.D., and that there was is a 20% probability that a single writer could have had his writings altered, the probability of such an alteration would be 0.2^10 = 0.0000001024.

So we have Prob (Int. Before 500 years) = 1/100,000; Prob (Int. Between 500 and 1500) = 1.024/10^7.

That already makes the hypothesis of any interpolation extremely unlikely, given attestation of the Josephus text in multiple early independent sources. The probability of non-interpolation is nearly 1.

The manuscripts of Josephus can be compared to Tacitus (a first-century Roman historian, who also mentions that Christ, the leader of the Christians, was crucified under Pilate but not His resurrection).

Almost no one doubts the authenticity of the passages in Tacitus. And Josephus’s manuscripts are earlier. We don’t even really need the manuscripts themselves to complete the case because of the independent citations of Josephus in other early writers. But if someone wants to compare them, (1) the manuscripts of Josephus are of superior quality to those of Tacitus, (2) almost no one doubts the manuscripts of Tacitus, and so (3) the manuscripts of Josephus should not be doubted on that basis. There are manuscripts of Josephus in Greek and Latin, in Arabic, Syrian, and Slavonic.

As for whether Josephus was a disciple of Jesus or not — we see in the Gospel itself that some hesitate to confess Christ openly, rather doing so in secret. For example, there is the Pharisee Nicodemus and, among others, even Joseph of Arimathea (see Jn. 3:1–2; 7:13; 19:38; etc).

In Pope St. Clement of Rome’s Recognitions, he hands down the tradition that even Rabbi Gamaliel was a disciple of Jesus, but in secret — “Gamaliel, who, as we have said, was of our faith, but who by a dispensation remained among them” (Recognitions, Chapter 66). Now, if we reread Acts 5:34–39 and the ominous warning, “lest perhaps you be found even to fight against God,” we may understand that in this passage is contained an implicit confession that Jesus was God.

So it’s quite possible that Josephus too was a disciple of Jesus in secret but did not openly join himself to Christians. Some early Fathers and saints are content to say Josephus was a lover of Truth.

We leave our readers and the subject with this concluding consideration:

THOUGH Josephus did not design here to declare himself openly a Christian, yet he could not possibly believe all that he asserts concerning Jesus Christ, unless he were so far a Christian as the Jewish Nazarenes, or Ebionites, then were, who believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the true Messiah, without believing that he was more than a man; who also believed the necessity of the observation of the ceremonial law of Moses, in order to salvation for all mankind; which were the two main points of those Jewish Christians faith, though in opposition to all the apostles of Jesus Christ in the first century, and in opposition to the whole Catholic Church of Christ in the following centuries. It seems then to appear that Josephus was, in his own mind and conscience, only a Nazarene, or Ebionite Jewish Christian; and it is observable, that his entire testimony, and all that he says of John the Baptist and of James, as well as his absolute silence about all the rest of the apostles, exactly agrees with him under that character, and no other. We all know that the thousands of Jews who believed in Christ (Acts xxi.20.) in the first century, were all zealous of the ceremonial law; and by consequence, if there were any reason to think our Josephus to be, in any sense, a believer or a Christian, as from these, testimonies there are very great ones, all these, and all other reasons, could not but conspire to assure us he was no other than a Nazarene, or Ebionite Christian.

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