Flavius Josephus (c. 37 CE – c. 100 CE) was a first-century Jewish historian who chronicled the destruction of First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) in two works: The Jewish War (c 75 CE) and Antiquities of the Jews (c 94 CE). There are two sections in Antiquities that are often used to argue that Jesus existed historically. The first is called Testimonium Flavian and is an obvious forgery. The second is called the 20.9.1 Jamesian Reference and is generally considered to be authentic but has various inconsistencies that makes it difficult to interpret.
Josephus also mentions the death of John the Baptist.
The Testimonium Flavian, a passage from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, is often cited by apologists as independent, 1st century confirmation of the existence of Jesus. However, there are many problems with the passage including it breaking the flow of the chapter that it appears in and no one noting it until the 4th century. Therefore, it is likely that it was inserted by later Christian writers.
- "About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."
Even if the paragraph was entirely genuine based on Carrier's examples of Ned Ludd and John Frum it would still not show Jesus existed as a human being simply because it is too brief. Nevermind that there is no consensus on exactly what parts of the Testimonium Flavianum (if any) are actually from Josephus.
The 20.9.1 Jamesian Reference
Another quote from Josephus that's used by Christians is the following mention of James the Just:
"Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus, the Jewish high priest] assembled the sanhedrin of 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 law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. (24) Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest."
- — Josephus, Antiquities Book 20: chapter 9
This quote isn't as obviously forged as the Testimonium. Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome reference this passage, indicating it was present in their copy of Josephus but it still may be an earlier interpolation.
The passage has multiple interpretation issues and potential inconsistencies, which makes any conclusions speculative.
- "While the appeal to the text of Josephus is often made in the attempt to secure the place of Jesus as a figure in history, the text of Josephus itself is far too insecure to carry the burden assigned to it."
Also, Antiquities was written long after the death of Jesus, so it is only a secondary source at best. The claim that other historical figures are accepted on weaker evidence than Jesus is generally factually incorrect.
Inserted phrase "the brother of Jesus, him called Christ"
Several historians argue that this phrase was inserted by later Christians, although it must have been a very early alteration as all copies contain this phrase.
Josephus was writing for a Roman audience who would not have been familiar with Jewish beliefs concerning the Messiah. Indeed, they probably wouldn't even have known what the word "Christ" meant. To throw such a description in without any explanation would have confused the readers.
- "The words have the character of a brief marginal gloss, later incorporated innocently into the text."
Why would Josephus suddenly mention Jesus before the person that the passage is actually about? On the other hand, if this were a Christian interpolation it would make sense to have Jesus' name be in the place of status, or the entire section may be about Jesus, but then in context it would be about another Jesus (son of Damneus) who in the end is made high priest.
After reading the rest of the text of this passage we find that the Jews were so angry about the stoning of James that they they demanded that King Agrippa fire Ananus. Why would the Jews be angered over the killing of a Christian, since Christians were seen as heathens by the Jews?
After the angry Jews get their way, "Jesus" is put in charge, Jesus son of Damneus and not Jesus son of Joseph. It seems as though "who was called Christ" was simply a margin note that got added to the text. The context would suggest that Jesus and James are brothers and after James is killed his brother is made to be high priest. And therefore the passage has nothing to say about any Christians but rather Jewish infighting.
With the exception of Jerome every other reference (Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Early Christian tradition) the death of James the Just is put around 69 CE by being thrown from a battlement, stoned, and finally clubbed to death by passing laundrymen. The James in Josephus was killed in 62 CE by just stoning.
Moreover Rufinus of Aquileia in the 4th century stated James the Lord's brother was informed of the death of Peter (64 CE or 67 CE ie after the James in Josephus was dead and gone).
Origen is often used to prove that this passage is not an interpolation but both of his supposed references claim that Josephus made direct connection between the death of James and the fall of the Temple:
""this writer" (Josephus)… "in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple"… "says nevertheless"… "that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)"."
- — Against Celsus 1.47
""But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but in reality, as the truth makes dear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.""
- — Against Celsus 2.13
Contrary to Origen's claim, the "Jamesian Reference" makes no connection between the death of its James and the fall of the Temple.
The original Greek wording of the passage itself is extremely similar to Matthew 1:16 . For an Orthodox Jew this would be extremely unlikely.
Furthermore Christ was a title not a name and Josephus gives examples of many would be Christs that caused trouble:
- Simon of Peraea (d 4 BCE).
- Judas, son of Hezekiah (4 BCE).
- Matthias, son of Margalothus (during the time of Herod the Great) - thought by some to be the "Theudas" referenced in Acts 5.
- Athronges (c 3 CE).
- Judas of Galilee (6 CE).
- The Samaritan prophet (36 CE) killed by Pontius Pilate.
- Theudas the magician (between 44 and 46 CE).
- Egyptian Jew Messiah (between 52 and 58 CE). Supposedly led an army of 30,000 people in an attempt to take Jerusalem by force which the Romans drove back, killing 400 and capturing 200. According to Josephus he "came out of Egypt to Jerusalem" and "He advised the crowd to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of a kilometer."
- An anonymous prophet (59 CE)
- Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (66 CE)
- Jesus ben Ananias [Ananus] (66-70 CE). Suggested by Carrier as being the raw template for the Passover section of "Mark"
- Menahem ben Judah (sometime between 66-73 CE).
- John of Giscala (d c70 CE)
- Simon bar Giora (69-70 CE)
- Jonathan, the weaver (73 CE)
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was also mentioned by Josephus and this section is considered authentic by most historians.
Releasing the body after crucifixion
When discussing the burial of Jesus, the claim made by Josephus could be relevant:
- "[the Idumeaens] proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun."
Bart Ehrman argues that Josephus is talking about (at most) the release of bodies of common criminals during peacetime, not about enemies of the state or during war time. Jesus was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader at a time they were concerned about unrest in the region. Being an enemy of the state, it is highly unlikely the Romans would have released the body to burial.