Historical References to Jesus, His Miracles and His Resurrection, Outside the New Testament
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The following is a brief excerpt from a larger book.
For a fuller treatment of this subject as well as a better context, see:
I’d Like To Believe In Jesus, But…
(The harder, less frequently discussed questions)
By Bob Siegel
Published by Campus Ambassador Press
A ministry of Mission To the Americas
Copyright ‹1999 by Bob Siegel
This article is not be be reporduced without written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved
Many good books have been written on the accuracy of the Bible, and for that reason, I will move on now and spend some time talking about the witness of Jesus outside of the New Testament, because that witness also is abundant.
We’ll begin with the Jewish witness. Although the original church was made up primarily of Jews, most of the nation of Israel rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah, and the Jewish priests and teachers were particularly hostile to Him. In the Talmud (an ancient rabbinic storehouse of law, wisdom and commentary) Jesus is described as both a sorcerer and an apostate.
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to Apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover (Sanhedrin 43A, Babylonian Talmud from Tannaaitic period 70-200 Ad. Translation from Jacob Shachter, Sanhedrin, Translated into English With Notes, Glossary And Indices, Chapters 1-6 by Jacob Schachter, Chapters 7-11 by H. Freedman, London, 1948: Soncino, p.281-2). 1
Yeshu, of course, is the Hebrew word for Jesus. "Hanging" was another way of describing a crucifixion.2 Apostates were people who broke from the faith and/or preached heresy. Jesus’ divine claims certainly placed Him into this category. The idea of a mere man claiming to be the God of Israel was as outrageous and dangerous as false teaching could possibly be. (Unless, of course, Jesus was telling the truth). But the Sanhedrin (a Jewish puppet court, allowed by the Romans to have limited jurisdiction over internal affairs) did not believe His claim and had no recourse but to denounce Him as a traitor and blasphemer.
Now here’s the big question: Why did the Talmud go on to conclude that Jesus was also a sorcerer? Because, in those days, if you didn’t like a religious personality but could not deny the fact that He was doing miracles, the only recourse was to call Him a sorcerer, or tool of the devil. Although most Jews today will insist that they do not believe in Satan, Jews in Jesus’ day did. He was mentioned in the Holy Scriptures (Job 1, 2), and He was viewed as a rebellious spirit who sought to deceive people by performing miracles, as exemplified by the magicians of Pharaoh’s court who imitated the miracles of Moses (Exodus 7, Kiddushin 49:b, Babylonian Talmud).
What we have then, is a fantastic anti-Christian source with bias pre-disposed against Jesus, a source nevertheless affirming that a teacher named Jesus came to Palestine with incredible claims and an ability to perform miracles.
But the Talmud isn’t the only extra Biblical source. The Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-100 Aprox.) talks briefly but matter-of-factly about Jesus. He did not live long after Jesus and could easily have encountered many eyewitnesses to the resurrection. He would also have had access to documentation unavailable to subsequent generations. We know Josephus was not a Christian. For one thing, he believed that the Roman Emperor Vespasian was the Messiah.3 Also, a Christian would have spent much more time and detail documenting a movement which he felt was the most significant one in the world. Josephus’ clear yet casual interest in Jesus indicates a desire to list comprehensively, the influential men of his day, not a desire to spend a lot of time there as a biographer. In this manner, he mentions the resurrection almost off the cuff, as though it weren’t even a matter of dispute.
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 at 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 (Antiquities of the Jews book 18 chapter 3, William Whiston translation, The Complete Works of Josephus, Kregal Publications, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1981, p. 379).
In all fairness to the reader, I must admit that this is a very contested and disputed passage. The argument goes like this: "Josephus could not possibly have written this paragraph about Jesus because he wasn’t a Christian. Only Christians would call Him Christ and only Christians believe He rose from the dead."
Ironically, these same skeptics are usually the ones who begin their dialogue by saying, "Show me just one ancient historian, other than a Christian, who claims Jesus rose from the dead. If it were really so historical, people other than Christians would have known about it."
"OK, " I respond, "Josephus, a credible ancient source, whose writings are widely used by historians and archaeologists alike for their knowledge of the ancient world."
"Oh, well …yeah…but Josephus doesn’t count. We know for a fact that the Jesus passage is corrupted, probably placed there by some Christian interpolator years after Josephus died."
"Oh we know this for a fact do we? Tell me, exactly how do we know it for a fact?"
"Because Josephus wasn’t a Christian. Only a Christian would have claimed Christ rose from the dead."
"But you just asked me for a non-Christian historian."
This is called "having your cake and eating it too." Sometimes there is simply no pleasing people. You give them just exactly what they ask for, and they dismiss it by engaging in circular reasoning.
The bottom line: That passage exists. It's there in every extant manuscript of Antiquities 18. The claim of Christian rewriting is an argument based upon silence and those are the most fleeting arguments of all. If one wants to make such a claim, the burden of proof is on him. This rebuttal is based upon three erroneous assumptions: 1) That Josephus could not call Jesus the Christ if he thought Emperor Vespasian was the Messiah. 2) That Josephus would have to be a follower of Jesus to believe He rose from the dead. 3) That the phrase "if it be lawful to call him a man," could not be used by anyone who didn’t accept the deity of Christ. I will address these assumptions one at a time:
1) Jesus was actually a very common name in those days. Josephus himself mentions 14 different Jesus’. It makes sense to assume that by using the term Christ,4 he is simply specifying which Jesus he is talking about instead of claiming to be a follower. We should remember that Josephus was writing primarily to a Greek and Roman audience. The term Christ would have had special meaning to a Jew but not to the audience Josephus wrote for. To the Greeks and Romans, Christ would designate a certain revolutionary from Palestine, not a title.5 This theory is supported by another text in which he actually says "Jesus, who was called Christ."
..so he assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James and some others (or some of his companions) and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the laws, he delivered them to be stoned (Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, Ibid, p. 423).
Interestingly enough, this passage, (the only other time Josephus mentions Jesus Christ) is generally accepted by all scholars and probably reveals what Josephus intended in the book 18 passage, a mere identification, a distinction from other men of the same name.6
2) The idea of a resurrection was commonly taught by Jewish Pharisees, and Josephus tells us that he became a Pharisee in the very first chapter of his collected writings. Pharisees believed in a final resurrected kingdom of God (Sanhedrin 90 A, Babylonian Talmud). This resurrection was discussed in their Holy Scripture (Daniel 12:2), and there was even a story in II Kings 4 describing Elisha (by the power of the Holy Spirit) raising a widow’s son from the dead. Josephus accepted the Scriptures as the word of God (Against Apian 609 William Whiston translation) and wrote himself about the prophet Elisha (Antiquities of the Jews Book 9). Therefore, he could easily have accepted the resurrection of Christ on the basis of investigation, interviews with eyewitnesses etc. He could comprehend the notion of a holy prophet rising from the dead, without even flinching, without feeling obligated to number himself amongst the Christians.
3) I should point out that Jews believed in angels who could visit the earth manifested as human beings (Gen. 18), so this phrase "if it be lawful to call Him a man," in no way proves any personal belief on Josephus’ part in the divinity of Jesus. However, in all likelihood, Josephus saw Jesus not as an angel but as a prophet and was merely trying to describe Him as an unordinary man by using an exaggerated figure of speech not uncommon to ancient Jewish writers.7 Possibly the historian considered both possibilities, angel or prophet. Josephus, aware of Jesus’ miracles may have simply been playing it safe by saying, "I’m not really sure who Jesus was, but his impact is significant, and I remain open." Obviously when a word like if is used, no conclusion has been drawn.
We can confidently add Josephus’s testimony as a Jewish, non-Christian verification of the resurrection.8
But I have saved the best for last. Have you ever wondered where the disciples and Luke obtained their detailed information about Christ’s trial since they did not witness it personally? It seems that at least a good deal of it came from Pilate himself. It was standard of governors to make judicial reports and send them off to Rome, but Pilate went even further, writing a lengthy letter to Emperor Tiberius. In this letter, commonly referred to as The Acts of Pilate, he describes Christ’s trial and talks candidly about the many events surrounding the resurrection, including all of the events discussed earlier about the guards and the tomb. He even goes on to describe other Biblical accounts such as the stone being rolled back supernaturally, the darkness, the earthquake, etc. Finally, Pilate confesses his own conviction that Christ must have been who He claimed to be, a decision he unfortunately arrived at after Jesus’ trial. Just think, events so compelling that the Roman governor himself re-evaluates the identity of Jesus. This makes The Acts of Pilate one of the most amazing and persuasive secular witnesses for the Gospel.
Now there is one problem and it’s a significant one. This document doesn’t actually exist today in any museum. That is, it doesn’t exist any more. It has either been destroyed in the passage of time or possibly lost and waiting to be rediscovered like the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.9
Before you throw down this book in anger at a writer who so quickly pulls the wind out of his own optimistic sails, let me reassure you that what does exist today are other ancient documents referring to the Acts of Pilate.10 There are four such testimonies, and we will look at them in a moment, but first it must be pointed out that much of the writing from the ancient world has been lost. Pilate’s report is by no means a rare exception. It is not uncommon to reconstruct the likelihood of one source by looking at other sources.11 As the noted scholar F.F. Bruce puts it:
People frequently ask if any record has been preserved of the report which, it is presumed, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, sent to Rome concerning the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The answer is none. But let it be added at once that no official record has been preserved of Judea which Pontius Pilate, or any other Roman governor of Judea sent to Rome about anything. And only rarely has an official report from any governor of any Roman province survived. They may have sent in their reports regularly, but for the most part these reports were ephemeral documents, and in due course they disappeared (F..F. Bruce, Ibid, p.19).
Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, made clear reference to a document called the Acts of Pilate in a letter addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 150. Describing in detail the passion of Jesus he writes:
And the expression "They pierced my hands and feet," was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified, they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the ‘Acts of Pontius Pilate’ (First Apology 35:7-9, translation from Rev. Alexander Roberts D.D. and James Donaldson LL.D editors, The Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol 1, WM B. Eerdman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 174-75).
Justin went on to list many of Jesus’ miracles such as the healing of the blind and the lepers. He also credits Jesus with raising people from the dead. This description of Jesus’ deeds is concluded with the following words:
And that He did those things, you can learn from the ‘Acts of Pilate’ (First Apology 48:3, Ibid. p. 179).
Justin assumed that this record still existed in the official Roman archives and that Antoninus Pius could verify the facts easily. Justin’s whole purpose in writing his letter was to obtain mercy from the highest official in the known world, thus sparing the Christian community a persecution which was becoming so commonplace. It is unlikely that Justin would ask a Roman Emperor to check a document if he did not feel extremely confident that the document existed. Otherwise, he would be foolishly putting his own life and reputation at risk.
Another early Christian leader, Tertullian (160-220AD), wrote to Roman officials about the unusual events surrounding the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. Discussing a time when the Roman Senate actually considered classifying Jesus as a Roman deity due to the miraculous nature of his life, he wrote:
To go back to the origin of such laws there was an old decree that no one should be consecrated a god by an emperor till he had been approved by the senate. Marcus Aemilus followed this procedure in the case of a false god, Alburnus. This reinforces my argument that among you, godhead is conferred by human approval, if a god does not satisfy man he does not become a god, so according to this it is for man to show favor to God. Tiberius then in whose time the name of Christian came into the world, when a report of this doctrine reached him from Palestine where it originated, communicated to the senate making it clear to them that he favored the doctrine. The senate however, because they had not examined the doctrine for themselves, rejected it. But Tiberius stuck to his own view and threatened to execute any who accused the Christians (Apology 5, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 3, Hendrickon Publishers, Peabody, Massachusettes 1995, pp. 21-22).
In this same letter, Tertullian specifically mentions the armed guards at the tomb, the sealing of the sepulchre, the rolling back of the stone, the guards scattering, the earthquake, the darkness, the spreading of a false report about the disciples stealing the body and Christ’s last words on the cross. After this long discourse he says,
All these things Pilate did to Christ and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions sent word of Him to the reigning Caesar who was at the time Tiberius (Apology 21, ibid. p. 35).
Eusebius (260-399AD) also tells us that Pilate knew about Jesus’ miracles and resurrection and that he made a report of such matters to Emperor Tiberius (The History of the Church, Book 2, v.2). A church historian, commissioned by the first Christian Emperor Constantine, at a time when the pre-Christian Rome’s documents were undoubtedly still available, Eusebius’ witness is key.
Some will argue here that Eusebius was a biased Christian historian, but years earlier a non-Christian historian named Tacitus (AD 56-117 aprox.) also verified Pilate’s report. Writing about the great fire of Rome that Nero blamed on Christians and disliking Christians himself, Tacitus sought to explain the origins of the movement.
Their originator, Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary set back, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital (The Annuls of Imperial Rome, Chapter 14 The Burning of Rome, Michael Grant Translation ,Penguin Books revised edition, 1989, first published 1956, p. 365).
A famous historian, reputed in his own days as being extremely careful and factual, Tacitus would not have been prone to writing about a movement without first checking the Roman archives to see if he could not get the most accurate report possible.12 As you can see, in talking about early Christianity, he referred to the trial under Pilate. We assume that this information came from Pilate’s official report, for any other source would have been hearsay to Tacitus. He would have compared it to the definitive Roman record. Tacitus also suggests that something caused the Christian movement to break out afresh right there in Palestine after Christ’s execution had seemingly died things down. I find this a very interesting description. If the death of Jesus had somehow discouraged and caged the Christian movement, what would it have taken to revive it? This is undoubtedly a reference to the many testimonies that Jesus had risen from the dead, although obviously, these were not testimonies Tacitus personally believed, given the way he is describing Christians elsewhere.
Given the accuracy of the historical events surrounding the trial, death and burial of Jesus Christ, a good inductive process concludes that He rose from the dead.13 This history is found in the varied and reputed witnesses whose writings make up part of the New Testament. Although obviously biased, such reports can be read alongside a quite different bias of the Jewish Talmud, painting a bad picture of Jesus but nevertheless confirming that He did miracles and was executed. The Jewish historian Josephus (not a Christian) supplies an even bigger piece to the puzzle and reports the resurrection as a historical fact. Finally, the report of Pilate himself provides many details about the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Although this document has been lost, four credible witnesses to this document still exist today including the testimony of the reputed non-Christian Roman historian Tacitus.
Is there still room for doubt? Recall our earlier discussion about the difference between proof and evidence. All this is historical evidence, good evidence, but evidence alone. It can be doubted but no more than anything else in history that we have a tendency to accept. It passes any objective historian’s test in terms of the many and varied sources and eyewitness accounts. Still, this is not proof. This is a "trail of bread crumbs" left by God for those who want to open their minds and seek Him in prayer. Then, as mentioned in my first chapter, one can actually meet this resurrected Jesus.
1) Jacob Neusner, who edited his own translation of the Babylonian Talmud, uses Schachter’s translation for this passage and admits that the text "is ommited in censured editions of the Talmud and is not found in the standard printed text" (Jacob Neusner, The Talmud of Babylon, An American Translation XXIII Tractate Sanhedrin, Brown Judaic Studies 84, 1984, Brown Univrersity, p. 74).
2) As far back as the time of Moses, it was a Jewish custom to hang executed criminals on a tree, even if they had first been put to death some other way, such as stoning (Deut.21:22-23). Although the Romans crucified Jesus, handing Jesus over to Pilate for punishment was as close to executing the sentence themselves as the Sanhedrin could possibly come in those days. Even though crucifixion was not a Jewish form of execution, the Roman purpose in crucifixion closely paralleled the Jewish purpose in hanging. Jesus, in a manner of speaking, was hanged publicly for all to see. Setting such an "example" to other potential offenders was the Roman reason for crucifixion ( Josephus, War, 7, Tacitus Historia 4, 3, 11). Therefore, the Romans as well as Jews shared the practice of a public example, even though they had different ways to execute people. Certainly Paul made the connection between the death of Jesus and the hanging described in Deuteronomy 21, for he actually quotes the verse in Galatians 3:13 while talking about Christ’s crucifixion.
3) In Josephus’ own writings (War iii 392-408) we see this belief. The Roman historians Tacitus (History v13) and Suetonius (Vespasian 4) also discuss Josephus and his view of Vespasian.
4) The terms Messiah and Christ mean the same thing, "anointed one." Messiah is derived from Hebrew and Christ from Greek.
5) The Roman historian, Tacitus calls Christianity a superstition, but still refers to Jesus as Christ (The Annuls Of Imperial Rome, Chapter 14). Pliny the Younger , a governor who arrested Christians in 112 AD, also calls Him Christ (Annals 15:44, 2-5).
6) The quick reference to Jesus in Book 20 suggests that Josephus is assuming his readers are already familiar with Jesus, giving even more evidence for the existence of the previous writing.
7) For a fuller discussion of ancient Jewish writing style, see Chapter Seven.
8) There is much more to be said about this disputed passage, commonly known as the Testimonium Flavianum. So as not to get too tangential at this point, I will instead refer the reader to a special appendix on Josephus at the end of the book.
9) The Dead Sea Scrolls were accidentally discovered in a cave at Cumran by a shepard boy in 1947. Some 40,000 fragments of religious documents were left there by the Essene community, a kind of Jewish cult existing at the time of Christ. These rigorous disciplinarians isolated themselves from the rest of Israel, choosing instead to live in the wilderness. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide valued information, not only about the Essenes, but the land of Palestine itself. Many portions of the Old Testament were also found amongst these scrolls, including the complete book of Isaiah, dating approximately 150 BC. Prior to this discovery, the oldest complete Old Testament text, (the Ben Asher text) was dated at about 101O AD. When the Ben Asher text is compared with Isaiah, we see very little difference. Therefore, the Dead Sea Scrolls bridged a gap of over 1,000 years, demonstrating that the Jewish scribes who copied the scriptures, did so with great care and accuracy. As you see, scholars had to wait a long time for this terrific attestation of the Bible. Undoubtedly other such discoveries will be made as archeological digs continue in Israel.
The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 near Rosetta, a city in Northern Egypt. An inscription written in Greek as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics, it provided one of the first clues toward the interpretation of hieroglyphics.
10) There is an Apocryphal Acts of Pilate also known as The Gospel of Nicodemus. This forged document, created sometime after the fourth century, is not the same Acts which I am referring to, although its author undoubtedly wanted it to pass as such.
11) For example, a great deal of the teachings of Socrates come to us through the writings of Plato.
12) A letter has survived from Pliny the Younger, a Roman Governor over the province of Bythinia, in which he writes to Tacitus, "Thank you for asking me to send you a description of my uncle’s death so that you can leave an accurate account of it for posterity….I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you…" (Epistles 6:16). This says something about the reputation Tacitus had amongst Roman citizens. And obviously, the very preservation of Tacitus’ works also say something about his reputation.
13) For a fuller treatment of this inductive process see Frank Morison, Who Moved The Stone? (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids Michigan)
Special section on Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum
The earliest Greek copy of Antiquities 18 (designated as A) dates around the eleventh century. There is a Latin translation which dates much earlier (sixth century). Since by this time the works of Josephus were in the hands of the Christians, and since these manuscripts are so far removed in time from the originals, it is easy for some to assert that Christians doctored up the passages.
A pertinent question to start off this discussion: Why would Christians with such an ambition restrict themselves to one short paragraph and not just forge a whole chapter or book about Jesus allegedly written by Josephus?1
I must also point out that scholars do not have much problem with anything else written by Josephus, despite the fact that these too are copies and not originals. Most of what we have from the ancient world is copied, and this is not considered cause for alarm amongst scholars unless the manuscripts seem to verify Christianity. Then, whole new standards are usually applied.2
But here is what’s really interesting: If the passage got doctored up, the alteration would have to have taken place long before our earlies extant manuscripts, and as we are about to see, this would have been difficult. We know that Eusebius (AD260-339) was familiar with the Testimonium Flavianum in the same form as copies A and Lat. He is the first author on record to mention it. In two of his writings he quotes the passage word for word (Ecclesiastical History l:11 and Demonstration. Evan. Lib iii p 124). In a third, he mentions it with minor variations (Proof of the Gospel 3:5). Eusebius is bridging a tremendous gap, and I believe that by briefly comparing the history of his writings with the history of Josephus’we find very little window of opportunity for manuscript tampering.
Considered a traitor by the Jews for surrendering to Vespasian in battle after unsuccessfully leading a Jewish revolt (AD 67), Josephus was granted protection from this Roman General who later on became Emperor. Living in Rome under the wing of the Emperor, Josephus became quite popular, so popular that many people began to copy and circulate his books. Christians did this too, because Josephus had a good, readable, Greek summary of Jewish history at a time when copies of the Holy Scriptures were not as readily available to the public. It is during this time of Christian circulation that the inserted or tampered Testimonium Flavianum would have to have come on the horizon since any theory which places it after Eusebius would not be able to explain why Eusebius quotes from the passage in its present form. Unfortunately for the "tampering theory", there is no mention of this passage by Christian writers prior to Eusebius, so once again, we are faced with that famous argument from silence.3
This theory is also unlikely given the credentials of Eusebius. A clergyman who attended the historical Council of Nicea and returned home as a member of the orthodox majority, Eusebius was commissioned by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome to deliver an oration commemorating the Tricennalia, the celebration of Constantine’s first thirty years as Emperor (335-36). After the death of Constantine, Eusebius worked on his biography and was still writing it when he passed away himself. Apparently Constantine admired Eusebius greatly and confided in him about many things.
Eusebius’ History of the Church dates about 324-25 AD, and most of it was written about a decade earlier. Since this work was penned shortly after Christianity was legalized and since Eusebius enjoyed favor from Constantine, he would have had access to the most official (and presumably original) texts of Josephus as they had remained in the hands of the Romans, not the church.
We have now established that Eusebius at least had the opportunity for accuracy. The only question remaining is whether he chose to utilize this opportunity or instead purposely changed the Testimonium Flavianum to advance some personal agenda. The latter is most doubtful. We must remember that for him to become a reputed historian of his day, some measure of honesty and integrity must have been awarded him. Keep in mind also that he was writing and quoting Josephus for his contemporaries. Since the works of Josephus were distributed to the populace, it would have been very difficult to simply invent some passage out of thin air when too many were around with Josephus manuscripts to contradict him. For this reason, even many scholars who believe some tampering took place, feel that the Testimonium Flavianum represents a changed form of a genuine Josephus writing. Some believe that words like so called originally appeared before the word Christ or allegedly before the claim of resurrection and that these phrases were dropped in the passage of time.4 There are some quotes of the Testimonium from other church officials following Eusebius which do show different renderings with words of that sort. But why would Eusebius remove explanatory words? His reference to the passage as it is suggests that he viewed Josephus as one who implied such amendments anyway (without feeling the need to write them), for he refers to Josephus, not as a Christian, but as a Jewish source. He seems to see Josephus as a historian who is writing about what people claimed and not numbering himself as a follower.
However, it may not be amiss if over and above, we make use of Josephus the Jew for a further witness (Dem. Evan. Lib. iii p.124, William Whiston translation, The Complete Works of Josephus, Kregal Publications, Grand Rapids Michigan, 198l, p. 639).
The "alteration theory" presupposes that Eusebius would have dropped such phrases as so called to make Josephus more of a believer. Again, that seems counter-productive to Eusebius’ purpose in making the quote. It also fails to explain why Eusebius, if he had such an agenda, would not have also reconstructed the Antiquities 20 passsage in which Josephus does say "Jesus, who was called Christ."
Still, since after Eusebius, different forms of the passage did pop up, let us look at some of the different wordings over the centuries and see if we can account for the variations.
Jerome (332-420) uses a version in Latin that does come close to the standard text, with the exception of the phrase, "He was believed to be the Messiah" (Of Illustrious Men 13, as quoted by Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts,1992, p.168).
Agapius, a tenth century Christian author, writing a history of the world in Arabic, quotes the passage in the following way:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But those who became his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive; accordingly He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. (Brought to light by Shlomo Pines in his book An Arabic Version of the Testimonium, Flavianum and its Implications, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971, pp. 9-10).
At the end of the twelth century, Michael, the Patriarch of Antioch, also quotes from Josephus, saying that Jesus "was thought to be the Messiah. But not according to the principal men of our nation." (Relevant portion of the text given by Pines Arabic Version, p. 26)
I am intrigued that people cite these variations to refute the Testimonium, for my observation is that they do quite the opposite. It should be pointed out that the quotes differ even from each other. This does not seem to suggest a reference to an earlier, more accurate text. On the contrary, it implies that Josephus simply called Jesus the Messiah, and these men in their paraphrases are telling us what they think Josephus meant when he said it. Notice the variations:
-"was thought to be the Messiah"
-"accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah"
-"He was believed to be the Messiah"
Of course we are reading quotes and not transcriptions for a new manuscript. People frequently paraphrase when they are simply intending to give a quick quote. The literary observation is that these were alternate elaborations, stemming from an earlier, simpler statement. Assuming it was common knowledge that Josephus was not a Christian, and assuming that he still referred to Jesus as the Messiah, it makes sense that some paraphrases would try to tell us what Josephus "truly intended to say."
Other church authorities over the years refered to the Testimonium, citing Josephus as a Jew and not as Christian. He is mentioned by Ambrose (AD 360), Hedsronym (AD 400), and Isidorus Pelusiota (AD 410). Sozomen, (History Eccles. Lob. 1 cap. 1 440 AD) writes:
Now he seems to me by this revelation almost to proclaim that Christ is God. However, he appears to have been so affected with the strangeness of the thing as to run as it were in a sort of middle way so as not to put any indignity upon believers in Him, but rather to afford his suffrage to them. (William Whiston translation, Ibid. p. 641).
Trithemius (AD 1480 Abbas d Scripture Eccles.) says,
Josephus the Jew, although he continued to be Jew, did frequently commend the Christians and in the Eighteenth book of his Antiquities wrote down an eminent testimony concerning our Lord Jesus Christ (Whiston translation, Ibid, p. 643).
These commentaries over the ages give no hint whatsoever of a belief in a Christian Josephus. If the church had tried to rewrite the Testimonium for that reason, there is absolutely no evidence to support it. On the bottom line, even if it is someday proven that the original Josephus text included words like was thought or perhaps, we have lost nothing in our argument, for it would still show that the resurrection claim was an event monumental enough for a historian to take note of it, trying as hard as he could to refrain from personal bias.
1) An Old Russian version of a different book of Josephus, History of the Jewish War, contains a longer passage about Jesus which some believe to be an expanded version of the Antiquities passage, proving a Christian interpolation. Interpolations did sometimes happen. They are evident in different versions of the New Testament. In such cases there were a variety of reasons, generally relating to well meaning scribes who were attempting to explain some unusual word or inconsistency. Sometimes comments that were originally intended as footnotes got into the actual text by mistake. Other times, a scribe truly thought he was correcting an error (since the manuscript he was copying from was also a copy and not the original). But the careful and intellectually faithful scribes far outweighed the presumptuous ones, and the multiple copies of manuscripts can usually show when copyist changes (deliberate or intentional) were made, helping us to reconstruct with considerable accuracy, what the original manuscript said. This discipline, known as Textual Criticism, is explained with great detail by Princeton Professor, Bruce Metzger in The Text of the New Testamet, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford University Press,New York,1992).
With this in mind, let me make a few observations about the Slavonic Josephus passage. First of all, it does not have the manuscript verification of the Testimonium, for it comes up in only one manuscript (dated eleventh or twelfth century) and is not found in any Greek editions of History of the Jewish War. Therefore, this time we have good objective evidence that something was added. No such case can be made for the Testimonium.
In any event, this Slavonic version, (however it got there) takes a very neutral position on who Jesus was and instead gives detail about His trial. Such reporting suggests that it may not be an expanded version of the Testimonium at all but perhaps another historical tradition about Jesus, (maybe from Josephus, maybe from some anonymous author) that floated around independently for a while, and that somebody eventually included into Josephus’ writings.
I do not dismiss the fact that sometimes outright forgeries (such as apocryphal literature) were written. We usually have condemnations of such forgeries from church authorities who were contemporaries of the writers. Also, the Testimonium itself is so brief that it does not match the long winded ambition of those documents which are known forgeries.
2) For example, from the time Aristotle the philosopher lived and died to the earliest copy of an Aristotle manuscript, we have a time gap of 1,400 years, yet the existence of Aristotle as a teacher and the accuracy of his writings is undisputed (F.F. Bruce Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament).
Also, the "scholars" who reject the New Testament (and subsequent verifications) often times are not historians or archaeologists but (ironically) clergymen of a liberal persuasion. One can get a Doctorate from a seminary just as he can from any other graduate school. This does not mean that we shouldn’t respect such degrees or fields of study. Instead, we should be aware that subjective and specific assumptions often forge the conclusions at some (but not all) seminaries. See A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1994). A professor at Oxford University, he gives his appraisal of the New Testament as a historian.
3 ) The second century church leader Origen (185-254) states that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Christ (Origen, Against Celsus 1.47, Origen, Commentary On Mathew Matt. 10:17) and some take that to mean that the Testimonium either did not exist in his day or at least said something different if it did exist. We should not interpret Origen’s statements as evidence one way or the other since he does not quote from, or refer directly to, the Testimonium. For reasons given earlier, Origen (just like Eusebius and others) could easily have read the Testimonium without concluding that Josephus was a Christian.
On the other hand, Justin Martyr gives a general reference about Jewish history affirming the resurrection of Jesus. He states confidently in his Dialogue With Trypho a Jew that the nation of Israel did "learn that He (Jesus) rose from the dead," (Dialogue With Trypho CVIII, Translation from Rev. Alexander Roberts D.D. and James Donaldson LL.D editors, The Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol 1, p. 253). He does not mention names, but this may very well have been a reference to the Josephus record.
3) Paul Barnett, ten years Master of Robert Menzies College is one who believes the Testimonium includes slight tampering, but that we can still reconstruct a true tradition of Josephus. He says,
..many scholars are prepared to accept much or all of the remainder of the text as genuine. I am impressed by the reference to the Christians as not being extinct "to this day" which echoes the same laissez-faire neutrality towards Christianity as shown by Josephus’ fellow Pharisee Gamaliel back in the thirties (Acts 5:38-39). Also, I detect in Josephus’ words "wrought surprising feats…a teacher…." an echo of yet another Pharisee, Nicodemus, who said that Jesus was a teacher who performed "signs" (John 3:2). Josephus refers to Jesus as "teacher" and "miracle worker" which supports from the comments on Nicodemus.
Finally, the phrase, "a wise man" is a favorable variation of "a charlatan man" a phrase used repeatedly for the turbulent would-be miracle working prophets whom Josephus vilifies elsewhere in his writings. Since Jesus was a non violent, non political worker and teacher, He might well be referred to by Josephus as a "wise man." Rather than reject this abstract altogether, it seems favorable to accept it with some deletions (Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1986 ) p. 2 9.
FF Bruce, (credentials listed earlier) takes a very similar position with much enthusiasm ( Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, pp. 32-41) as does the noted Jewish Professor Joseph Klousner, of Hebrew University (Jesus of Nazareth, London, 1929) pp. 55), and Dr. H. St. John Thackeray, a respected British authority on Josephus ( Josephus, The Man and The Historian, New York, 1929, p. 125 ff). Although less committal, Dr. Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary also admits to this possibility (The New Testament, Its Background Growth and Context, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1983 pp. 73-6).
Scholars who have accepted the entire Testimonium as is include: F.C. Burkit, (The Gospel History and Its Transmission,1906 p. 325), Michael Green, Professor of New Testament at Regents College, (Who Is This Jesus, Thomas Nelson Publisher,1990 p. 117), Dr. James Kennedy, an expert on comparative religions, whose doctorate work was done at New York University (Skeptics Answered, Multomuh Press, 1997, p. 77) and Normon Giesler, professor of Christian Apologetics at Dallas Seminary (Christian Apologetics, Baker Books, 1976 p. 323). Giesler does acknowledge the possibility of the 10th century Arabic version preserved by a Syrian bishop named Agapius. William Whiston, who translated the complete works of Josephus into English also defends the entire passage . His defense can be found in an appendix at the end of the translation called Dissertation 1. Whiston was both a theologian and mathematician. A graduate of Cambridge in 1690, he succeeded Sir Isaac Newton’s seat in 1703. His is the best complete English translation of Josephus.
The preceeding was a brief excerpt from a larger book.
For a fuller treatment of this subject as well as a better context, see:
I’d Like To Believe In Jesus, But…
(The harder, less frequently discussed questions)
By Bob Siegel
Published by Campus Ambassador Press
A ministry of Mission To the Americas
Copyright ‹1999 by Bob Siegel
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