Josephus: The Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3.3)
Josephus (37/8-100+ CE)
Antiquities of the Jews written in 93-94 CE.
In some apologetics books, it is common to see a version of the Testimonium Flavianum according to William Whiston's English translation. Not to digress, but Whiston was a very brilliant man, the successor to Isaac Newton at Cambridge and popularizer of Newton's theories. Interestingly, like Locke and Newton, Whiston was an Arian (a popular thing to be in the late seventeenth century). Whiston even left the Church of England and became a Baptist so he wouldn't have to hear the Athanasian Creed. Whiston's dissertations are interesting, at the end of his Josephus volume, especially the one where he tries to prove that Joseph ben Matthias (Josephus) became an Ebionite Christian Jew, and served as the 14th bishop of Jerusalem in the succession of James the Righteous. But there really is no historical substance there.
Anyway, since Thackeray (the great Josephus scholar - 1929), it has become the "majority view" in biblical scholarship that the TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM is either (1) a total interpolation (a view which has now practically disappeared), or (2) a partial interpolation (a view which has now become the dominant position). Based on these simple facts, I am always quite surprised when I open up low level Christian apologetics books which cite the entire Whiston reference as if it still held the sway of scholars.
Here we will demonstrate the authenticity of the "reconstructed" TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM. Note the entire text below, with the interpolations in bold letters.
"Now about this time there was a wise man named Jesus -- if indeed one ought to speak of him as a man, for he was a doer of astonishing deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of the Christians, named after him, has not died out."
This is the view of most higher critical scholars. It is the minority view nowadays to regard the entire TESTIMONIUM as an interpolation, based on the "criterion of embarassment" (cf. Josephus's longer and more noble mention of John the Baptist, which is discussed below). Additionally, there is sufficient evidence that this writing did not come from the pen of a Christian:
FIRST, there are indications in this writing that it is an extra-Christian text. Where it says, "And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin." This sentence here indicates that the writer was unfamiliar with the Gospels. Nowhere in the Gospels is there any indication of Jesus gathering to himself people of Greek origin. A Canaanite woman, a Samaritan woman, and a few Gentiles who come to him. But Jesus's command to his disciples in Matt 10 is "Go not to the Gentiles . . . rather go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Although the overarching Matthean theme "is" the great commission to the Gentiles in all the earth - this was a post-resurrection narrative theme.) Thus, this indicates that "the writer" of the TESTIMONIUM was unfamiliar with the Gospels - a later Christian interpolater would have been familiar with the Gospels - yet, the "writer" is familiar with the idea that Christians are both Jews and Gentiles, something that a Jew like Josephus could surmise, and probably make an analagous inference that the immediate followers of Jesus were both Jew and Gentile, as the later Christians were in 93-94 CE. A later Christian could not have written this and blatantly contradicted the canonical Gospels. The question is "Why didn't a Christian interpolater eliminate these words or doctor them to fit the Gospel picture"? Let's be consistent in our criticism!
SECOND, in Antiquities 18:5.2, there is a fairly lengthy section on John the Baptist, of whom Josephus has many lofty things to say. He even says that the Jews regarded Herod Antipas's failed military effort against Aretas (king of Petra) as a judgment from God upon Antipas because he had killed JBap. The "criterion of embarassment" leads us to regard the TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM as authentic (with great probability). Why would a Christian interpolater allow JBap to receive such a lengthy tribute from Josephus, while JNaz only received a few words? Like the example of JNaz's humble submission to the baptist in the Gospels, scholars regard such "embarassments" as authentic.
Another important thing about the JBap reference in Antiquities 18.5.2 is that there is "no" connection whatsoever between JBap and JNaz. The two are separated by three chapters and have "nothing to do with one another" in the mind of the writer. It is inconceivable that a Christian could have written this.
THIRD, if a patristic or medieval scribe was the "interpolator" of the entire TESTIMONIUM, why isn't there more of an anti-Semitic "bite" to this passage. The explanation of "Pilate" and the "leading men among us" is very bland. The Gospels, though differing somewhat in the Passion Narratives, all essentially agree that the Sanhedrin condemned JNaz for "religious" purposes, and Pilate condemned JNaz for "political" purposes." A patristic or medieval scribe with anti-Jewish sentiment (which was common) would have probably conflated the the passage to include some sort of anti-Jewish polemic. There is no anti-Jewish polemic in the TESTIMONIUM.
FINALLY, the phrase "And up until this day, the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out." First of all, the word "tribe" (Gr. phylon) is used by Josephus in many instances, yet is "not" particularly utilized by Christians in describing themselves. Secondly, if this was penned by a Christian, there is no mention of the fact that the Christians have somehow persisted, even through the persecution of Nero. There is no "triumph" of Christianity in the tone of this passage.
Stripped of the obvious Christian interpolations, there is still a nucleus to the TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM which is regarded as authentic by the majority of scholars. And thus, it tells us some important things about JNaz. Accordingly, Jesus was supposedly a wise teacher who also wrought some wonders (the latter claim was nothing shocking to Josephus because he himself wrote of Vespasian's miracles). Secondly, the text also tells us that Jesus got into some trouble with the religious and political authorities to the point where he was executed. A crucified rebel or leader was nothing out of the ordinary in those days, but Josephus seems a bit surprised that the "tribe of Christians," for some reason, "has not died out." Now "that" was extraordinary.
Thus, we have extra-biblical support for the historical Jesus. The fact that the TESTIMONIUM wasn't used by ante-Nicene Christian apologists does not testify to it's absence from the record, it just affirms the rather neutral tone of the passage, and that it was therefore theologically useless, especially in the context of rising christological problems, etc.
Tacitus (Annals 15.44)
Another important extra-biblical reference regarding the historicity of Jesus comes to us by way of the Roman statesman and historian, Cornelius Tacitus. The most unfortunate thing about "The Annals of Tacitus," which record the history of Rome between 14-68 AD, is that one of the gaps in the narrative occurs between the 29-32 AD. This doesn't mean that Tacitus recorded anything specific about JNaz or Pontius Pilate, but it would have been interesting since Tacitus showed great interest in the Tiberian period. At any rate, there are other interesting things about this quote besides the reference to a group called "Christians" whose name comes from one "Christ" -- nominus eius Christus. Before I begin to elaborate, though, let me write the entire quote from Annals 15.44 below, and remember that Tacitus is writing towards the end of his life (57/8-ca. 118), and his focus at this point in the Annals was to record the Neronian Persecution after the great fire of Rome.
"Therefore, to squelch the rumor [about the fire], Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called 'Christians,' [a group] hated for their abominabe crimes. Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suprpressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all sorts of horrendous and shameful pactices from every part of the world converge and are fervently cultivated."
Now, Tacitus, writing this towards the end of his life, probably when he was proconsul of western Asia Minor ca. 112-13 AD, was writing primarily about Rome and Nero's Fire. So, this passage really has historical importance for early Christianity in Rome, and how opposition to the Imperial Cult was considered "evil," "deadly superstition," "horrendous," and "shameful." This is of tremendous importance when we consider how early Romans perceived Christians, even to the point where Nero could use them as scapegoats and the people would support his morbid persecution. As much as we have corruption in our political system here in America, we should consider ourselves lucky that we didn't live under the dominion of the great-great grandson of Augustus, the last of the Julio-Claudian line, the pupil of Seneca, and the son of Agrippina (whom he had clubbed to death) -- NERO.
Anyway, Tacitus had good cause to know "something" about Christians since he governed over the Ephesian region, as did his friend Pliny the Younger who governed over Bythinia -- both indicated that they had some "remote" knowledge of the "Christian problem," and the latter some immediate knowledge of the problem. But it is very important to note that both Tacitus and Pliny, as governors in the early second century, only had a "remote" knowledge of Christianity. The visibility of "Christian Judaism" (a Roman perception) really started to become evident when "Christian Judaism" evolved into a Gentile-inclusive "cult" called "Christians."
Now, allow me state some interesting things about the TACITUS reference.
1) The entire text is very negative, dismissive, and condescending towards the Christians. It simply could "not" have come from a Christian pen. Notice how Tacitus says, regarding the scapegoats, "those whom the 'common people' called Christians." This is an elitist, and perhaps aristocratic, remark because Tacitus is implying that he doesn't acknowledge them any more than he acknowledges any cult, apart from the Imperial Cult and the worship of the gods. That he doesn't acknowledge them is indicated when he says "the 'common people' [call them] Christians, [of course, I don't call them anything -- they are just another superstitious cult which I don't even recognize]. It's important to understand that this is an "elitist" perception here because "the writer" is sociologically removed from the Christians. The "Christians" do not exist in "his" world. Moreover, he speaks negatively about this superstition. He has nothing to do with it - he wants nothing to do with it.
2) But what is interesting is that (a) He assumes that "Christ" is a proper name because he makes an etymological connection with the term "Christians" - compare how Josephus simply uses the name "Jesus." (b) He has knowledge that JNaz was executed during the Tiberian reign (14-37 AD) by the procurator Pontius Pilate 26-36 AD. Now, how does he have this knowledge? Where did he get this knowledge? It isn't because he has intimate knowledge of the Christian teaching - as we said, he is sociologically removed from what he deems a cult. Therefore, this knowledge must have come to him through Roman sources, whether it was his from his friend Pliny, whether it was from his detailed study of the Tiberian reign and the problems in Judea, or whatever. I'm just saying that it's interesting how Tacitus "knows" about Jesus's execution by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. What is his source? Some have suggested Josephus, but most scholars dismiss that idea.
3) Some skeptics can't resist in saying that Tacitus would have never used the word "procurator" as a title for Pontius Pilate because of the Caesarea Maritima insciption discovered in 1961. And it's true that the term "prefect" was more appropriate for a man of equestrian (not senatorial) rank, like Pontius Pilate. However, critical scholars have pointed out that the terms were used interchangably, especially in marginal regions like Judea.
4) Another thing is when Tacitus says that, after the execution of Jesus, "[his movement was] suppressed for the moment . . . broke out again, not only in Judea, the land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome. This is a loaded statement. Essentially, the phrase indicates that (a) this "Christ" character had some kind of noxious movement in Judea "prior" to his execution (presumably the execution is what temporarily suppressed the movement), but (2) the movement "somehow" broke out "again," and (3) the movement was now polluting Rome. Interestingly, this seems to be quite congruent with the general story of the Gospels and Acts. There seems to be a consistent general parallel between the two - the extra-biblical reference parallels the biblical story in general terms.
Without having to go further in quoting extra-biblical sources, the Josephus and Tacitus references are sufficient to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus (at least during the period of Pilate - 26-36 AD).
So, what are the scholarly conclusions simply from the TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM and TACTITUS references?
"Now about this time there was a wise man named Jesus -- if indeed one ought to speak of him as a man, for he was a doer of astonishing deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of the Christians, named after him, has not died out." (Josephus -- ca. 93-94)
"Therefore, to squelch the rumor [about the fire], Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called 'Christians,' [a group] hated for their abominable crimes. Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all sorts of horrendous and shameful pactices from every part of the world converge and are fervently cultivated." (Tacitus -- ca. 112)
Thus we have the core facts of the Essential Jesus just from two extra-biblical sources:
The Essential Jesus
1) A wise man and teacher with a devout following
2) It was said that he had performed astonishing deeds
3) The religious leaders accused him of something
4) Pilate condemned him to the cross and executed
5) His following seemed to disappear for a short time
6) But his following was somehow revived again
7) His followers flourished in Judea, where he was executed
8) His followers spread the movement even to Rome
9) His followers called him Christ (Gr. "annointed")
Josephus: The Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3.3)