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, have not disappeared to this day. – Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.3
This quote is perhaps, the most famous passage in all the works of the first century historian Josephus. The reason it is so is because it provides an extensive account of Jesus that doesn’t exist in almost any other ancient non-Christian text in the world, and is amazingly early as well. The attestation of Josephus is perhaps the nail in the coffin for mythicism. Mythicism is laughed at by all respected historians in the world, but it must still be crushed as internet populists tend to believe whatever they are told. This single phrase in the works of Josephus perhaps can single handedly dismiss the entire nausea of mythicism… But is it authentic?
Historians in fact believe that this passage is not fully authentic. The reason is quite simple. Josephus, in this passage, recounts Jesus as the literal Messiah (Christ), say that He rose from the dead, was prophesied and did many miracles, and in the phrase “a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man” — we have an implication of Jesus being more then just a man. This would be an impossible saying of Josephus, because not only was Josephus not a believer in Jesus, Josephus was the very type of Jew condemned in the New Testament, a Pharisee! But it also obviously isn’t fully forged, either. Historians have already figured out that the passage in question is only partially interpolated and in its original form does mention Jesus, in fact, as we will see, we probably know what the original form of this passage was later on.
As I mentioned earlier, the passage of Josephus here is obviously not a forgery and that is because it is simply filled with Josephan language.
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. – Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.3
The phrase in the beginning of this passage says “Now there was about this time..” — this phrase is used hundreds of times in the writings of Josephus to introduce new topics, and so is markedly Josephan. Secondly, Josephus references Jesus as a “wise man”, and this title is found nowhere in early Christian texts to refer to Jesus. Rather, Josephus personally uses the phrase “wise man” to refer to several people, such as Solomon and David. Furthermore, Josephus here refers to Christians as a “tribe”, which is a phrase that is not used by Christians to refer to themselves — this term is a term used by Josephus to reference other sects, nations or distinctive groups. In fact, if this was a Christian forgery, one must ask, as the scholar John Meier did, why did it reference Christians as a group that should have gone extinct? Finally, as Tim O’Neill puts it, “with the sole exception of Χριστιανῶν (“Christianon” – “Christians”) every single word in the passage can be found elsewhere in Josephus’ writings” — so the evidence is clearly heavily stacked in favor of partial authenticity, especially considering the fact that this quotation of Josephus is found in all surviving manuscripts of the works of Josephus.
As noted earlier, this is exactly the position that historians take. Louis H. Feldman surveyed 52 scholars between 1937 to 1980 and found that 39 of them favored partial authenticity. After surveying 13 books on this passage since the year 1980 on this passage, Peter Kirby seems to find an increasing trend of favoring partial authenticity when he concludes “In my own reading of thirteen books since 1980 that touch upon the passage, ten out of thirteen argue the (Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.4 passage) to be partly genuine, while the other three maintain it to be entirely spurious. Coincidentally, the same three books also argue that Jesus did not exist” — which quite conclusively shows the view of academia on the subject.
So what did the original passage say?
I will now cite the text of Josephus as quoted by the 10th century Arab writer Agapius and the 12th century writer Michael the Syrian.
“Similarly Josephus the Hebrew. For he says in the treatises that he has written on the governance of the Jews: ‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And 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. And those who had become 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.’” (Agapius, Kitâb al-‛unwân 2:15–16)
“The writer Josephus also says in his work on the institutions of the Jews: ‘In these times there was a wise man named Jesus, if it is fitting for us to call him a man. For he was a worker of glorious deeds and a teacher of truth. Many from among the Jews and the nations became his disciples. He was thought to be the Messiah. But not according to the testimony of the principal [men] of [our] nation. Because of this, Pilate condemned him to the cross and he died. For those who had loved him did not cease to love him. He appeared to them alive after three days. For the prophets of God had spoken with regard to him of such marvellous things [as these]. And the people of the Christians, named after him, have not disappeared till [this] day.” (Michael the Syrian, Chronicle 10:20)
In these quotations, I did two things. I bolded the interpolated text and I italicized the text that differs from the standard Josephan text. As you can see, the bolded texts are what scholars consider added on to the original text and not what Josephus originally wrote. However, the more interesting parts of these two quotations is when, although the general text reads that Jesus “was the Christ”, these two quotations from Agapius and Michael render it “was thought to be the Christ” — which likely represents the original, as Josephus would not have declared Jesus as the actual Christ, but simply say in a commentary about him that he was believed to be the Christ. Furthermore, the standard text says “he appeared to them alive after three days”, whereas the quotation of Agapias simply reads “he was reported to have appeared to them” — which also likely represents the original of the text, as Josephus would not have declared that Jesus actually rose from the dead, but mentioned that those who became His disciples reported that He had risen from the dead. Finally, rather than the phrase “he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure” in the standard text, the quotation of Agapias says “And his conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous” — which is again, much more likely the original text as it removes all miraculous terminology from the phrase we have. In other words, because of these quotations we have of the works of Josephus, it seems that we have even further heavy evidence of partial authenticity, as it seems that we can pinpoint exactly where the interpolations were made. An objection might be made that the quotations of Agapias and Michael are very late (10th and 12th centuryes AD), however the earliest manuscript of Josephus postdates Agapius and hardly predates Michael anyways. All the evidence shows very clearly that the Josephus text is partially authentic, and based on our examination of the text, we can put together a likely original in the following manner;
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And 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. And those who had become 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.’ And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day. – Authentic Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.3
In this text that we reconstructed based on the available evidence we have, there is no sign whatsoever of interpolation or forgery, and the text retains immersed in Josephan language In a summary of all the overwhelming evidence for the partial authenticity of this passage accepted by the majority of modern scholars,
“We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus.” – James Charlesworth, PhD, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature
There’s one great thing about Josephus to note, though. Josephus actually references Jesus twice, not once, and he does so the second time in the following passage;
…Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim 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 sanhedrim without his consent… – Antiquities of the Jews, XX.9.1
Just to note, I cut off most of the full quotation because it was too long. Aside from that, this passage is held nearly unanimously amongst historians to be completely authentic, as there isn’t a figment of evidence to indicate it is an interpolation or forgery, or any section of this passage for that manner. Edwin Yamauchi says “Few scholars have questioned the genuineness of this passage.” In fact, Origen, an author from 250 AD quotes Antiquities XX.9.1 three times, in Contra Celsum I.4, Contra Celsum II:13 and Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei X.17, so there can be little doubt about the authenticity of this passage considering the overwhelming evidence of its authenticity, and the practical non-existence of evidence to suggest a forgery or interpolation. Apart from the complete debunking of Richard Carrier’s (a mythicist blogger who failed to achieve a career in academia) fanciful attempt to explain away this set-in-stone attestation of Josephus that is supported by all textual evidence, all manuscript evidence and very early quotations from Origen, there is no question regarding the attestation of Jesus in the works of Josephus, and this of course plunges the blade into mythicism. Funnily enough, some internet mythicists like to ignore the works of Josephus because they aren’t contemporary to the lifetime of Jesus, even though Josephus talks about events as early as 40 BC and no one, historian or mythicist alike, doubts the veracity of those passages and subjects in Josephus. As Maurice Casey, whom is an Atheist concludes,
“This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. …. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.” – Maurice Casey, PhD