Did Jesus exist? While a robust case can be made by appealing to the New Testament (NT) documents (see Evidence Unseen “Part Four,” 2013), in this series, we will only appeal to the hostile witnesses of history from outside of the NT. In previous articles, we considered the works of Cornelius Tacitus, as well as Pliny the Younger and Suetonius. In this article, we will consider the controversial work of Flavius Josephus.
Josephus (Jewish/Roman historian)
Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100) was a Jewish Pharisee and military commander who had been captured by the Romans before the fall of the Temple in AD 70. After being taken prisoner, he began working as the court historian for Emperor Vespasian and adopted a Roman name (“Flavius”). He gives us two important references to Christ:
The judges of the Sanhedrin… brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this.
Josephus demonstrates that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), and James went to his death for belief in his brother Jesus. Regarding this first passage, Van Voorst writes, “The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’ are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.” Josephus offers us another earlier passage about Jesus as well.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats… He was (the) Christ… he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.
Origen (AD 250) wrote that Josephus was not a Christian. Yet in this passage, Josephus openly affirms the basic truths of Christianity. This is so bizarre that both Christian and critical historians believe that a later Christian scribe must have altered what Josephus originally wrote. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian (AD 200) knew of Josephus’ works, but they didn’t cite this passage. Eusebius (a 4th century Christian historian) quoted this passage from Josephus, so it must have been distorted before that time (AD 325).
Hebrew scholar Shlomo Pines showed an Arabic manuscript (from Agapius’s Universal History—a tenth-century Christian work) in 1971 that might remove the distorted portions of Josephus’ work.
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 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.
Because of this manuscript and literary criticism, most scholars (critical or Christian) believe that we can reconstruct the historical core of what Josephus originally wrote before the scribe distorted it.
Bart Ehrman (atheistic NT critic): “It is far more likely that the core of the passage actually does go back to Josephus himself.” He later continues, “There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the pagan Tacitus or the Jewish Josephus acquired their information about Jesus by reading the Gospels.”
Louis Feldman (a professor of Classics and Literature Emeritus at Yeshiva University and leading Josephus scholar) claimed that somewhere between 3:1 or 5:1 hold to a historical core that goes back to Josephus.
Gerd Theissen (critical scholar): “With reference to Jesus, we have the Testimonium Flavianum (18.63-64), the kernel of which probably goes back to Josephus.” Gerd Theissen writes that a revised, neutral version of Josephus is “most probable. Josephus reported on Jesus in as neutral and objective a way as he did on John the Baptist or James the brother of the Lord.”
Craig Evans (NT scholar): “Most today regard the passage as authentic but edited.”
Paul Meier (a Josephus scholar) states that most scholars do not hold that this passage is either completely authentic, nor a complete forgery. Instead, he writes that “a large majority of scholars today, however share the third position… particularly in view of the newly-discovered Agapian text which shows no signs of interpretation.”
John-Dominic Crossan (radical NT scholar): “Even if Christian editors delicately inserted those italicized phrases later to make the description more positive, the basic content of the passage is most likely original.”
There are several reasons why scholars believe that this core of Josephus is original and uncorrupted:
First, the Arabic version gives empirical evidence of a core version. The Arabic version fits with what we know about Josephus’ view of Christianity. This manuscript doesn’t affirm that these events actually happened. Instead, it states that Jesus’ disciples merely “reported” these things.
Second, the language fits with Josephus—not an interpolator. The NT authors never call Jesus a “wise man.” While the expression “amazing deeds” is similar to Luke 5:26, it is nowhere else attested in the NT. Furthermore, the term “tribe” is also “Josephan but not Christian.”
Third, the mention of Jesus in chapter 20 points to an earlier mention of Jesus. Josephus mentioned Jesus briefly in chapter 20, when he says, “Jesus who was called the Christ.” This off-the-cuff remark leads us to believe Josephus already referred to Jesus with this messianic title earlier in his book (in chapter 18).
What does this passage tell us? (1) Jesus was considered a man of virtue and wisdom. (2) Both Jews and Gentiles became his disciples. (3) Pilate sentenced him to death. (4) His disciples followed him after his death. (5) His disciples claimed that he appeared to them alive after three days. (6) Jesus’ disciples also claimed that these events fulfilled Old Testament predictive prophecy.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:197-203.
 Van Voorst, Robert. Jesus outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2000. 83.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:63-64.
 Origen was familiar with both the passage about James the Lord’s brother and John the Baptist; however, he is not familiar with this passage. Against Celsus 1.45; Commentary on Matthew 10.17; cf. also Against Celsus 2.13.
 Ecclesiastical History, 1.11.
 Yamauchi writes that it was copied “by Agapius, the tenth-century Melkite bishop of Hierapolis in Syria… All these differences lead Pines to conclude that the Arabic version may preserve a text that is close to the original, untampered text of Josephus.” Wilkins, Michael J., and James Porter Moreland. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. 212.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:197-203.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 64.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 97.
 Obtained in a private email with the authors, Habermas and Licona. Habermas, Gary R., and Mike Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004. 268-269.
 Theissen, Gerd, and Dagmar Winter. The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. 14.
 Theissen, Gerd, and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. 74.
 Evans, Craig. The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. Volume 4. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 2004. 390.
 Meier, Paul. Josephus: The Essential Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1994. 284.
 Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1998. 12.
 Van Voorst, Robert. Jesus outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2000. 102.