Against the Testimonium Flavianum
Recently, on another website, I had a little discussion with various Christ Cultists on the historical proof (rather lack of) for the existence of their man-god. The major “know-it-all” promptly dished out the old, Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius manure that we have debunked more times than I can count. I posted something similar to the following, and have not had a rebuttal yet. You can add this to the Josephus ammo to use against Christ Cultists! The posting is as follows:
Before I address your Testimonium Flavianum and the quote from Antiquities, let’s address another two of Christians favorite “proofs” of a historical Jesus - Tacitus and Pliny the Younger’s quotations:
In 117 CE, about 40 years after the incident, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus reported the following:
"Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race." (Book 15, chapter 44)
The use of the term “Christian” in this quotation is an apparent anachronism, in that the term did not come into use until the late second century. To speak of a ‘great crowd’ would indicate that he was speaking of the Jews. The Christians at this time were perceived by the Roman populace and authorities as a Jewish sect. It is doubtful that Tacitus would have been cognizant of even the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, much less his followers. The very tenor of this quotation lends credence to the strong possibility of it having later Christian interpolations.
Gibbon, in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, had this to say: “Their effects to dissemble their Jewish origins were detected by the decisive test of circumcision; nor were the Roman magistrates at leisure to enquire into the difference of their religious tenets.
So not only was Tacitus writing nearly a half century after the occurrence, he was using a term that wasn’t “coined” until another several decades during the reported period and this quotation taken at face value only serves to show the possibility of a group that followed the teachings of Jesus existing in Rome at the time of Tacitus’ writing (not necessarily in 64 CE the time of the incident) and in no way proves the existence of a Jesus.
Sometime around 112 CE, the historian Pliny the Younger, as the the Roman Governor of Pontus/Bithynia made the first reference of Christians in his report to the Emperor Trajan:
'Christians ... asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. ' (Pliny to Trajan, Letters 10.96-97)
Notice that no Jesus was mentioned, only a Christ which might or might not be Jesus. All this proves is that in the 2nd century CE, there was a group that identified themselves as Christians, something that we already knew. It no more proves there was a Jesus than the existence of Mithrians proves there was a Mithra.
Around 112 CE, the noted Roman historian, Caius Suetonius wrote in the “Twelve Caesars” of “constant disturbances” incited by Jews and the action taken by Emperor Claudius:
'As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome:
Christians seize upon this statement as proof of Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. A closer look at Roman history will show that Chrestus was a common lower class name, usually used by freemen or slaves (there are over 80 Latin inscriptions that refer to one Chrestus or another, many predating the birth of Christ). Chrestus translates from ancient Greek into English as “the good” which, while is a description often used by Christians for Jesus, comes nowhere near translating as Christ. So Suetonius is referring to a Jewish agitator not to Jesus of Nazareth in this passage.
It is also said the in his “Life of Nero” Suetonius described Nero’s persecution of the Christians:
'Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief ...' (16.2)
This is rather hard to take as being more than a later Christian interpolation, as the term Christian was not in use until much later. Even Saint Paul makes no references to ‘Christians” in any of his letters, nor could Nero have anyway of telling a follower of Christ from a Jew. The idea that a nascent ‘Christianity’ immediately faced persecution from a cruel and bloodthirsty pagan Rome is an utter nonsense. Rome was known for its religious tolerance, at least until the Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Then for one thing, it is only in the last third of the 1st century AD, that Christ-followers emerged as a separate faction from mainstream Judaism. Until then they remained protected under Roman law as Jews. The irritation they caused to their more orthodox brethren meant nothing to the pagan magistrates. Says Gibbon:
‘The innocence of the first Christians was protected by ignorance and contempt; and the tribunal of the Pagan magistrate often proved the most assured refuge against the fury of the synagogue.’
Early Christ-followers called themselves 'saints', 'brethren', 'Brothers of the Lord' and their critics used various names: Nazoreans, Ebionites, 'God fearers', atheists. The Jewish association remained strong throughout the first century and when Christian sects got going in Rome in the second century they were identified by their rival leaders – Valentinians, Basilidians, Marcionites, etc. So little were Christ-worshippers known in the Roman world that as late as the 90s Dio Cassio refers to 'atheists' and 'those adopting Jewish manners'. Christians as a distinct group from the Jews appear only late in the 1st century, not long before the Jewish curse on heretics at the council of Jamnia (around 85 AD). The label 'Christian' itself only appears with the 2nd century Acts – with the story that the term 'began in Antioch' (11.26). Equally odd, is that Suetonius's isolated sentence appears in a section on Nero's 'good points.' It should also be noted that Suetonius does not associate punishment of the Christians with the fire that swept Rome, a crucial part of the later myth. Quite simply, the reference is a Christian forgery, added to Suetonius to backup the work of the 5th century forger Sulpicius Severus, who heavily doctored the work of another Roman historian – Tacitus – with a lurid tale of brutal persecution ('torched Christian martyrs') which immortalized Nero as the first Antichrist in the eyes of the Christian church. (The second Antichrist being the reformist Luther.)
Now to address the quotations from Josephus:
In 93 CE, Flavius Josephus published his “Antiquities of the Jewish” in which we find the infamous “Testimonium Flavianum“ or officially “Antiquities 18.3.3” which is quoted below:
Antiquities 18.3.3. "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 to this day."
The Testimonium Flavianum is contentious for various reasons. Very few scholars accept it as is currently written, but many do accept it with interpolations of varying degrees. The major question here is what are the interpolations or is the entire Testimonium a forgery inserted no earlier than the 4th century CE by a Christian with an agenda? I find the likelihood of a pious Jews such a Josephus to pen the phrase “He was the Messiah” and remain a Jew extremely low. It would also be unlikely that an author writing a history of the Jewish people for Roman consumption and with the backing of the Roman Emperor to write something that would make him suspect of treason and open him up to the prerequisite punishments of such a charge. In “Wars of the Jews”, published prior to “Antiquities”, he had made the statement that Vespasian had fulfilled the Messianic oracles. Hardly the statement of a Jew converted to Christianity! Origen, wrote twice that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Either the passage “Antiquities 18.3.3 (the Testimonium) received a few interpolations or it is entirely an interpolation. The phrases “He was the Christ”, “If it be lawful to call him a man” and "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" are the ones most often not accepted by those favoring partial authenticity. Even the name assigned to the passage, “Testimonium Flavianum” has a Christian ring to it, much like a Christian testimony. There as many points made against the validity of the passage, some of the more important are:
Josephus’ use of the phrase “to this day” is considered indicative of a writer writing long after the events being reported. Many Christians believe a span of 60 years between the death of Jesus and the publishing of “Antiquities” would be too close for Josephus to made a believable use of it and that the very survival of Christianity that long , would cause some surprise, since most cults vanish shortly after the death of their founders. This argument is very weak when you consider many of the modern cults like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc that are around and thriving long after the death of their founders.
Josephus’ description of Jesus is unusually shorter than his norm, less than half the size of John the Baptist’s. The Christian rebuttal to this is that it only serves to show Jesus’ lack of importance to populace of Judea at that time, that John and others such as the “Egyptian” were much better know, thus rated larger descriptions. This really doesn’t wash, because the “Antiquities” was targeted to a Roman audience who ould not have known John, Jesus, or the “Egyptian” from Adam, consequently Josephus gave in detail information on his characters. Something that he did not do in the “Testimonium”
When writing the “Jewish War” in the 70s CE, Josephus outlined two incidents in the section on Pilate that he used to begin chapter 3 of Book 18 of the Antiquities, incidents that had caused tumult in Judea during Pilate’s tenure as Governor. Whereas these incidents are followed immediately by the “Testimonium” in the Antiquities, in the corresponding section of the Jewish Wars (2.9/169/177) there is no mention at all of Jesus. Christian scholars argue that in the intervening decade between the books, that Christianity had become more important. This is highly unlikely since interpolations of the number of Christians in the late 1st century and 2nd century (based on number of Bishops and average number of churches under a Bishop and average church membership) indicate that only by the end of the 2nd century CE did the number of Christians reach over 100,000 out of a population of several millions in the Empire
The language Josephus used to describe John, although over twice as lengthy, when compared to the language of the “Testimonium” is extremely close, almost as if it were used as a template for the “Testimonium’s” description of Jesus. This is indicative of there being no reference to Jesus at all in the original version of Antiquities.
There is an ancient table of contents in the “Antiquities” that omits mention of the “Testimonium”; this is further indication that there was no such passage in the original version (this table of contents shows in the oldest existing manuscripts).
It is argued that the reference to "the tribe of Christians so named from him" requires the earlier phrase "He was the Christ." This is another reason to suspect this passage to be a later insertion. It was considered poor form in Josephus day to spell out a connection that was taken for granted.
The “Testimonium” seems to be out of context with the rest of Antiquities 18, whereas Josephus had be speaking of upheavals and the folly of Jewish rebels, governors and troublemakers, but there is no upheaval shown in this passage and it is completely supportive of Jesus and his followers. Contrary to his normal writing, there is no criticism of Jewish or Roman authorities; there is no moral or lesson. The closest the passage comes to criticism is in his statement, “and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross”, which if you cross your eyes and squint real hard, might look like criticism, and again might not. Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of 'another outrage' that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time (18.65), there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage. At best, with the “Testimonium” the flow from the previous paragraph to the “Testimonium” to the following paragraph is choppy and gives the impression of being not quite thought out. Without the “Testimonium” the flow from the previous paragraph to the final paragraph is natural and smooth, but the flow.
The passage does not fit well with its context in Antiquities 18. . . Josephus is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit. He says only that those who denounced Jesus were 'the leading men among us.' So, unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson. Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of 'another outrage' that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time (18.65), there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage. It is also argued that the continuity of the flanking passages works best when no passage about Jesus intervenes. The final thought of the previous paragraph flows naturally into the words of the one following, whereas the opening of the latter paragraph does not fit as a follow-up to the closing sentence of the Testimonium.
None of the early Christians cite the “Testimonium” in their works, not Justin Martyr, Theophilus Antiochenus, Melito of Sardis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexander, Julius Africanus, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Methodius,
nor Lactantius. Although each of these writers show familiarity with the works of Josephus, as pointed out by Michael Hardwick in “Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius”. Origen used passages from the Antiquities to establish the historicity of John the Baptist and would have been eager to quote the Antiquities to prove the historical existence of Jesus. Interestingly, It was for the purpose of proving that Jesus performed true miracles, not to establish his historicity, that Eusebius quoted the “Testimonium” in his “Evangelical Demonstration”. So we can show that the early Church Fathers would have gladly quoted an existing “Testimonium”. This is an absence of proof, but strong evidence of the “Testimonium” being a much later Christian interpolation.
The language style of the “Testimonium” shows several deviations from Josephus’ normal writing, in that it uses words in ways uncharacteristic of Josephus as pointed out by Steve Mason in “Josephus and the New Testament”. He continues on with the example of the word poietes (from which we get the word poet), translated as “worker” in the phrase “worker of incredible deeds”. Etymologically, it means “one who does” and so it can refer to any sort of “doer”. But in Josephus’ day it had already come to have special reference to literary poets, and that is how he consistently uses it elsewhere (nine times) – to speak of Greek poets like Homer (p. 169). Notice further that the phrase "they did not cease" has to be completed by the translator, for it is left incomplete in the text; the action which his followers ceased must be understood from the preceding phrase. This is as peculiar in Greek as it is in English, and such a construction is not found elsewhere in Josephus' writing. (p. 169) Again, the phrase "the tribe of the Christians" is peculiar. Josephus uses the word "tribe" (phyle) eleven other times. Once it denotes "gender," and once a "swarm" of locusts, but usually signifies distinct people, races, or nationalities: the Jews are a "tribe" (War 3.354; 7.327) as are the Taurians (War 2.366) and Parthians (War 2.379). It is very strange that Josephus should speak of the Christians as a distinct racial group, since he has just said that Jesus was a Jew condemned by Jewish leaders. (Notice, however, that some Christian authors of a later period came to speak of Christianity as a "third race.") (pp. 169-170). Finally, there is a peculiarity with the reference to the "principal men among us." Josephus elsewhere refers to the "principal men," but Josephus consistently refers to the principal men "of Jerusalem" or "of the city," using these phrases instead of the first person plural. In his autobiography, Josephus refers to the "principal men of the city" (2), "the principal men of Jerusalem" (7), the "principal men of the city" (12), the "principal men belonging to the city" (12), the "principal men of the city" (12), and the "principal men of Jerusalem" (44). In each case Josephus identifies the leading men as belonging to Jerusalem.
There are several ways in which the Testimonium aligns with the style and argument of Eusebius of Caesarea. In his "Eusebian Fabrication of the Testimonium", Ken Olson writes that in Adversus Hieroclem Eusebius argued that if he had to accept the supernatural feats attributed to Apollonius, he must regard him as a GOHS [wizard] rather than a wise man (A.H. 5); here he has Josephus call Jesus a 'wise man' and thus, implicitly, not a GOHS. The term PARADOXWN ERGWN POIHTHS is markedly Eusebian. POIHTHS never occurs in Josephus in the sense of "maker" rather than "poet," and the only time Josephus combines forms of PARADOXOS and POIHW it is in the sense of "miracle-making" is exceedingly common in Eusebius, but he seems to reserve the three words PARADOXOS, POIHW, and ERGON, used together, to describe Jesus (D.E. 114-115, 123, 125, H.E. 1.2.23). Eusebius' opponents were not denying that Jesus was crucified by the Roman and Jewish authorities; this was probably a main part of their argument that Jesus was a GOHS. Eusebius, however, cleverly inverts this argument. If Jesus had been a deceiver, and his followers had been deceivers, would not self-interest have compelled them to abandon his teachings after they had witnessed the manner of his death at the hands of the authorities? The fact that they did not abandon Jesus after witnessing the punishments he had brought upon himself can only mean that the disciples had recognized some greater than normal virtue in their teacher. This argument is developed at great length in D.E. 3.5, but I shall quote only a part of it here, "Perhaps you will say that the rest were wizards no less than their guide. Yes - but surely they had all seen the end of their teacher, and the death to which He came. Why then after seeing his miserable end did they stand their ground?" (D.E. 111).
Olson concludes: "the Testimonium follows Eusebius' line of argument in the Demonstratio so closely that it is not only very unlikely that it could have been written by Josephus, but it is unlikely it could have been written by any other Christian, or even by Eusebius for another work. There is nothing in the language or content of the Testimonium, as it appears in the Demonstratio Evangelica, that suggests it is anything other than a completely Eusebian composition."
As Earl Doherty stated in “ The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?”: "the entire tenor of such an 'original' does not ring true for Josephus. In the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say. Indeed, he condemns the whole movement of popular agitators and rebels as the bane of the century. It led to the destruction of the Temple, of the city itself, of the Jewish state. And yet the 'authentic' Testimonium would require us to believe that he made some kind of exception for Jesus." (pp. 210-211). It is argued that Josephus wrote the passage in a carefully neutral tone, however his readers were primarily Roman, some Jewish. What reason would he have had for being, in Meier's phrase, "purposely ambiguous"? He had nothing to fear from Christians, and no reason to consider their sensibilities. Regardless of what he may have thought about the character of Pilate, if Pilate had executed Jesus, then there had to have been - in official Roman and Flavian eyes - a justification for doing so. Crucifixion was a punishment for rebels, and Jesus' crucifixion would have been seen as part of Rome's ongoing campaign to deal with the problems of a troubled time in a troubled province. (p. 213). Thus, the fact that the reconstructed Testimonium has nothing but nice things to say about Jesus tends to work in favor of its inauthenticity. Consider the reference to Jesus as a "wise man" (sophos aner). Josephus reserves this phrase elsewhere for such worthies as King Solomon (Ant. 8.53) and the prophet Elisha (Ant. 9.182). Mason notes, "If Josephus said it, it was a term of high praise." (p. 171) But it is inconceivable that Josephus should have such high praise for one who is only given so little space and who is attributed with such negative characteristics (to Josephus) as apocalyptic prophecy and the cleansing of the Temple. True, the above is inconclusive, but are much stronger arguments than can be put forward for the authenticity of the passage.
As far as the 20.9.1 quotation from the Antiquities, The James, brother of Jesus could very well have been the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus, the contender for the High Priesthood along with Ananus, and politically quite strong with the Romans and the Jews. If would make for sense for this to be a “hit” against a rival (through his family) than trumping up charges against what was then thought of as a small sub sect of the Jewish religion, followers of a rebel crucified for sedition against the Romans! Many scholars consider this passage questionable at best. I hope that this will clear up any misconceptions you have about the lack of historical backing of Jesus of Nazareth (which didn’t exist until the middle of the second century CE, but we won’t go there now). - Heimdall