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Josephus on Jesus

In A.D. 93, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus published his work Antiquities of the Jews. The extant copies of this work, which all derive from Christian sources, even the recently-recovered Arabic version, contain a passage about Jesus Christ which has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum. If genuine, it is the earliest record of Jesus in Jewish sources, and as such is often cited as independent evidence for the historical existence of Jesus.

The passage is Book 18, Chapter 3, Item 3 of Antiquities of the Jews. In the translation of William Whiston it reads:

3. 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, are not extinct at this day.

Our sources for this are eleventh century Greek manuscripts, but Eusebius, writing in about A.D. 324, quotes the passage in essentially the same form. However, Origen, writing in about A.D. 240, fails to mention it, even though he does mention the less significant reference to Jesus that occurs later in Antiquities of the Jews. This has given rise to the suggestion that the Testimonium Flavianum did not exist in the earliest copies. The obvious conclusion is that the entire passage was added by a Christian scribe. That view is contested based on several stylistic considerations, although portions are almost certainly Christian interpolations.

In 1971, Professor Shlomo Pines published a translation of a different version of this passage quoted in an Arabic manuscript of the tenth century. The manuscript in question was written by Agapius, a tenth century Christian Arab and bishop of Hierapolis. Shlomo Pines' translation reads:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.

Pines suggests that this may be a more accurate record of what Josephus wrote, lacking as it does the parts which were widely considered to have been added by Christian copyists. However, its late date means that it cannot be considered too reliable, even though the source which Agapius quotes may well be much older.

Assuming Josephus wrote the passage in question, he probably based it on an extant Christian document. The content is similar to early Christian proselytizing, that material would have been available to him, and no other source is known.

A later passage in Antiquities of the Jews refers to a James "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ". Although it is possible that this is an interpolation, since it is simply an appositive, the simplest kind of interpolation, it is more widely believed to be authentic.


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