Great debate has occurred about the statements Flavius Josephus has made about Jesus Christ. His statement is commonly referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum. Some quickly accept the recorded statements about Jesus as true, while others quickly dismiss them as being too “positive,” and therefore, unacceptable. As a result a fierce debate has occurred over the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum in existing manuscripts of Flavius Josephus’ works, quotes from the works of Origen and Eusebius, and a Syrian document produced by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The goal has been to discredit the traditional statements and accept the Syrian document as the norm. While this is possible, one must avoid dismissing the traditional quotes. The following comments about the Testimonium Flavianum provide a unique perspective from Dr. F. F. Bruce, who was a Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England.

“We do find a reference to Him in all extant copies of Josephus, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities xviii.3.3. There Josephus narrates some of the troubles which marked the procuratorship of Pilate, and continues:

‘And there arose about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call him a man; for he was a doer of marvellous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment by the chief men among us, those who had loved him at first did not cease; for he appeared to them on the third day alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him: and even now the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.’

This is a translation of the text of this passage as it has come down to us, and we know that it was the same in the time of Eusebius, who quotes it twice. One reason why many have decided to regard it as a Christian interpolation is that Origen says that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah nor proclaim Him as such. That Josephus was not a Christian is certain in any case. But it seems unlikely that a writer who was not a Christian should use the expressions printed above in italics. Yet there is nothing to say against the passage on the ground of textual criticism; the manuscript evidence is as unanimous and ample as it is for anything in Josephus. It may be, however, that Origen knew the passage in an earlier form, which lacked the italicized sections. Since the text of Josephus has been transmitted by Christians and not by Jews, it is not surprising if his reference to Jesus should have acquired a more Christian flavour in the course of time.

If, however, we look more closely at these italicized sections, it may occur to us to wonder if it is not possible that Josephus was writing with his tongue in his cheek. “If indeed we should call him a man” may be a sarcastic reference to the Christians’ belief in Jesus as the Son of God. “This man was the Christ” may mean no more than that this was the Jesus commonly called the Christ. Some such reference is in any case implied by the later statement that the Christians were called after Him. As for the third italicized section, the one about the resurrection, this may simply be intended to record what the Christians averred. Some acute critics have found no difficulty in accepting the Testimonium Flavianum as it stands. The passage certainly contains several characteristic features of the diction of Josephus, as has been pointed out by the late Dr. H. St. John Thackeray (the leading British authority on Josephus in recent years) and others.

It has also been pointed out that omission of words and short phrases is characteristic of the textual tradition of the Antiquities; which makes it easier to accept a suggestion that the word “so-called” has dropped out before “Christ,” and some such phrase as “as they said” or possibly “as they say” after “for he appeared to them.” Both these suggested emendations are attractive, the former especially so, because the very phrase ‘the so called Christ’ occurs in the passage where Josephus related the death of James.

Two other emendations have much to commend them. One is a suggestion of Thackeray, that instead of “the truth”(Greek alethe) we should read “strange things” (Greek aethe). The other is a suggestion of Dr. Robert Eisler, that some words have fallen out at the beginning of the passage, which originally commenced: ‘And there arose about this time a source of new troubles, one Jesus.’ If, then, we adopt these emendations of the text, this is what we get as a result:

‘And there arose about this time a source of new troubles, one Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of marvellous deeds, a teacher of men who receive strange things with pleasure. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the so-called Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment by the chief men among us, those who had loved him at first did not cease; for he appeared to them, as they said, on the third day alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him: and even now the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.’

The italics this time mark the emendations. This version of the Testimonium has got rid, by one or two very simple devices, of the difficulties of the traditional text, while it preserves (or even enhances) the worth of the passage as a historical document. The flavour of contempt is a little more marked as a result of the additions; and the closing reference to ‘the tribe of Christians’ is not inconsonant with a hope that though they have not yet died out, they soon may.

We have therefore very good reason for believing that Josephus did make reference to Jesus, bearing witness to (a) His date, (b) His reputation as a wonder-worker, (c) His being the brother of James, (d) His crucifixion under Pilate at the information of the Jewish rulers, (e) His messianic claim, (f) His being the founder of ‘the tribe of Christians’, and . . . (g) the belief in His rising from the dead.[1]

Conclusion

Josephus’ statement is not diminished by Dr. F. F. Bruce’s conclusion. Others almost completely reject the entire quote as a Christian emendation. In doing so, they ignore the well thought out consideration given by Dr. F. F. Bruce. Those who would quickly reject his statement as being too Christian appear motivated to free themselves of having to deal with the real likelihood that Jesus returned to life. They also ignore the fact that the Jewish Toledoth Jesu admits that Jesus’ grave was empty. The Jews just offered a different reason as to why it was empty. The New Testament indicates that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day also offered an excuse.

Some struggle with the thought that Jesus even existed. More individuals struggle with the idea that He did miracles, in spite of the ancient testimonies. Everyone who believes that Jesus existed agrees that He died. No one struggles with that concept. But most people find it difficult to believe that Jesus returned to life. The apostle Paul encountered the same problem. Read the following,

While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” Agrippa replied to Paul,”In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” Acts 26:24-28 (NAS95S)

The Governor Festus could not believe that Jesus was resurrected, but King Agrippa struggled and maybe eventually become a Christian. So we should not be surprised that Flavius Josephus had a difficult time accepting the truth that Jesus returned to life too! What is truly stunning though is that Josephus confirms the teachings of the apostles and his statements about Jesus agree with a host of other ancient secular authors. He is not alone. The weight of ancient secular evidence is stunning.

References:

1. F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents. Eerdmans Publishing Co. The Inter-Varsity Press. 1981. . p. 111-115.