CHAPTER 15: Does Josephus confirm the New Testament?

[Excerpt from Chapter 15: The Hostile Testimonies]

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Flavius Josephus was a Jewish Pharisee and military commander who had been captured by the Romans before the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E. After being taken prisoner, he began working as the court historian for Emperor Vespasian.

JOSEPHUS: “…The judges of the Sanhedrin… brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this.”[1]

From this passage in Josephus, we learn a number of things.

First, Josephus mentioned that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19).

Second, Jesus was known as “the Christ” by his followers (Acts 2:36).

Third, James went to his death for belief in his brother Jesus.

Origen—a third century Christian—quoted this passage, and he stated that Josephus was not a believer in Christianity.[2] This makes sense of Josephus’ statement that Jesus “was called the Christ.” He didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah—only that he was called the Messiah.

F.F. Bruce notes, “His identification… makes us ask if his works contain any more direct reference to Jesus.”[3] In fact, we find such a reference in chapter 18 of Josephus’ work. However, both Christian and non-Christian scholars dispute the reliability of this passage.

DISPUTED JOSEPHUS PASSAGE: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats… He was (the) Christ… he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.”[4]

Remember, Origen wrote that Josephus was not a Christian, and nothing in his writings would cause us to believe that he was.[5] Yet in this passage, Josephus openly affirms the basic truths of Christianity. This is so bizarre that both Christian and critical historians believe that a later Christian scribe must have altered what Josephus originally wrote. Eusebius (a 4th century Christian historian) quoted this passage from Josephus, so it must have been distorted before that time (325 C.E.).[6]

Since we’re almost certain that a scribe distorted this passage, does this mean we should throw it out altogether? No. In fact, many historians believe that we can reconstruct what Josephus originally wrote before the scribe distorted it. Even critic Bart Ehrman writes, “It is far more likely that the core of the passage actually does go back to Josephus himself.”[7] Hebrew scholar Schlomo Pines showed an Arabic manuscript in 1972 that might remove the distorted portions of Josephus’ work.[8]

UNALTERED VERSION OF JOSEPHUS? “At this time there was a [1] wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. [2] And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. [3] Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. [4] But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. [5] They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, [6] concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”[9]

There are four reasons to believe that this Arabic manuscript accurately records Josephus’ original writing: First, many of the words are difficult to ascribe to a Christian writer; Christians didn’t use these expressions. Second, the passage fits with Josephus’ own grammar and history. Third, Josephus mentioned Jesus briefly in chapter 20, when he says, “Jesus who was called the Christ.” This off-the-cuff remark leads us to believe Josephus already referred to Jesus with this messianic title earlier in his book (in chapter 18). Fourth, the Arabic version fits with what we know about Josephus’ view of Christianity. This manuscript doesn’t affirm that these events actually happened. Instead, it states that Jesus’ disciples merely “reported” these things.

If this Arabic manuscript accurately reflects Josephus’ original, then we can learn a number of things.

First, Jesus was considered a man of virtue and wisdom.

Second, both Jews and Gentiles became his disciples.

Third, Pilate sentenced him to death.

Fourth, his disciples followed him after his death.

Fifth, his disciples claimed that he appeared to them alive after three days.

Sixth, Jesus’ disciples also claimed that these events fulfilled Old Testament predictive prophecy.

In addition to these citations, later in chapter 18, Josephus mentioned another character familiar to Bible readers: John the Baptist.

JOSEPHUS: “Now some of the Jews thought that it was God who had destroyed Herod’s army, and that it was a very just punishment to avenge John, surnamed the Baptist. John had been put to death by Herod, although he was a good man, who exhorted the Jews to practise virtue, to be just one to another and pious towards God and to come together by baptism. Baptism, he taught, was acceptable to God provided that they underwent it not to procure remission of certain sins but for the purification of the body, if the soul had already been purified by righteousness. When the others gathered round John, greatly stirred as they listened to his words, Herod was afraid that his great persuasive power over men might lead to a rising, for they seemed ready to follow his counsel in everything. Accordingly he thought the best course was to arrest him and put him to death before he caused a riot, rather than wait until a revolt broke out and then have to repent of permitting such trouble to arise. Because of this suspicion on Herod’s part, John was sent in chains to the fortress of Machaerus… and there put to death. The Jews therefore thought that the destruction of Herod’s army was the punishment deliberately sent upon him by God to avenge John.”[10]

Josephus went out of his way to explain that the Jews were coming to John for baptism, and he also mentioned that Herod murdered John. Moreover, he noted that the Jews at the time considered John the Baptist to be a virtuous man.

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[1] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 20:197-203.

[2] Wilkins, Michael J., and James Porter Moreland. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. 212.

[3] Bruce, F. F. Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament: (2. Print.). Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 1974. 36.

[4] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18:63-64.

[5] Origen was familiar with both the passage about James the Lord’s brother and John the Baptist; however, he is not familiar with this passage. Origen Contra Celsum 1:47.

[6] Wilkins, Michael J., and James Porter Moreland. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. 212.

[7] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 64.

[8] Yamauchi writes that it was copied “by Agapius, the tenth-century Melkite bishop of Hierapolis in Syria… All these differences lead Pines to conclude that the Arabic version may preserve a text that is close to the original, untampered text of Josephus.” Wilkins, Michael J., and James Porter Moreland. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. 212.

[9] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 20:197-203.

[10] Ibid., 18:116-119.