Flavius Josephus (37–97 AD) was a Jewish historian without whom there is much in the ancient we would know nothing or very little about, such as Caligula’s death, Claudius’ ascension, the Herods, the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Much of our information about Roman military operations from this era comes from his pen as well.
As far as his general accuracy is concerned, one well-known historian had this to say: “… Josephus did not quite equal the national historian of Rome [Livy] in literary merit though he perhaps matched him in accuracy of statement”. [Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963), 24.]
Since Josephus was a specialist of sorts on Palestine in general and Jewish history, in particular he took note of a great number of happenings in the region. More to the point, in every manuscript of Josephus extant, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth. Any individual bringing forth evidence against the existence of a historical Jesus must of course deny the authenticity of this passage or their case is grounded before ever taking flight, as it were.
The official Latin name for Josephus’ Jesus passage is the Testimonium Flavianum, sometimes this is referred to as the TF for short. The question is, is the passage authentic? The general consensus is yes, it is authentic but some definite corrections need to be made in order to get at the original wording. It is obvious to most that scribes monkeyed around with the text and little by little, it was modified.
Why? Very few scholars today believe the TF is a total interpolation and even fewer believe it to be totally authentic. Why the controversy? The main problem is that Josephus said things concerning Jesus in the TF that he, as a non-Christian Jew, would never have said.
For example “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the Christ” and “he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”. If Josephus have said any of these things, he would have most certainly been a Christ-follower himself yet we most certainly know he is not.
For example, Origen (ca. 185–254) said that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (Contra Celsum 1:47) and Justin Martyr made a similar comment about Josephus. This mention by Origen should lead us to ask the question, “how did Origen know Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah”? The only reasonable answer is that Origen knew of some earlier form of the TF, which contained a brief report on the life of Jesus without an ascent that Jesus was the Messiah. It is not difficult to show that our current Arabic version of Josephus easily fits the bill (more on this in the next post).
Now, we have set the stage for the TF. In the next post, we will go more into detail on this passage.