Historical Evidence of the Gospel: Josephus and Jesus

In the last couple of articles, we have considered Josephus’ documentation on John and Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Herod.  In this article, we will be looking at Josephus’ most important corroboration with the biblical account, his documentation of Jesus. There are two separate occasions when Josephus mentions Jesus, and we will deal with the second time first.

In Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” (20.9.1), he speaks of the stoning of James, and identifies him as the brother of Jesus: “and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” Here, Josephus unwittingly supports the gospel record,  speaking of the existence of both James and Jesus; and most importantly, his identification of Jesus as the one “called Christ.” Now Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish people during the latter first century, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Even before the destruction, the gospel of Jesus had already spread to the entire world (Romans 10:18; Rev 14:6; Romans 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:8), and therefore, the identification of Jesus as the Christ was known worldwide. To speak of Jesus as the one “called Christ” would not be unusual, even for a non-Christian like the historian Josephus. Notice that he does not, in any way, confess his belief in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), he only says that Jesus “was called Christ,” in order to properly identify the Jesus that he mentions in the document. It is also most significant to note that this brief mention of Jesus as the one “called Christ” is written in book 20 (which is more like a chapter in contemporary literature), and just earlier, in book 18, he spends more time discussing Jesus. So, while the two times that Josephus records Jesus are often times considered apart, they are far from it, in my opinion. If one were reading Josephus’ history from start to finish, they would come first to the more detailed discussion of Jesus, and a couple of pages later, see a quick reference to Jesus “who was called Christ.” While his words here are brief, he is only giving his readers a reminder of what he already spoke of in detail. All in all, Josephus’ reference to Jesus as one popularly called “Christ” is an important corroboration with the biblical record of the life of Jesus, but the contemporary view that He was the Christ. Adding the fact that Josephus was not a Christian, and yet spoke these things, makes his witness all the more important. Friends, there is no greater witness in the courtroom than the one who has no ties to the one on trial, nor agrees with the one on trial, and yet gives their witness of what they have seen and heard in favor of the one on trial. That Josephus is not a Christian makes his documentation of Jesus very significant. By the way, scholars and critics alike have concluded that this statement of Josephus is authentic and not snuck in later by Christian scholars.

The first time that Josephus gives witness to the life of Jesus is in 18.3.3, where he says: “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.”

Without a doubt, what we just read was nothing short of incredible; however, this passage has undergone a tremendous deal of scrutiny, and rightly so. While the first passage we looked at in Josephus has proved to be authentic, this passage is a different story. It’s not that it is non-authentic, but there are some things that have been a concern among critics. The first thing I want to note is that the vast majority of this text is authentic beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s the good news! The problem lies not with the quote as a whole, but with a few parts of it. It is believed that early Christian scholars and historians when making copies of old books, like Josephus’ histories, put their own spin on passages like this one. I too believe that there is something fishy going on with the text. Remember how, in book 20, Josephus referred back to his previous discussion of Jesus (which is the text we are discussing now), and he said “Jesus, who was called Christ”? While that statement has passed the authenticity test, this earlier text, however, says “He was the Christ.” This is not the belief of Josephus even though this is the most popularly published translation of his history. The old Syriac version of Josephus’ history, probably never touched by early Christian scholars, has this variation: “he was believed to be Christ.” This more closely harmonizes with Josephus’ later reference to Jesus as one “called Christ.”

The other difficulty in the passage is how Josephus seems to blame the death of Christ on the Jewish authorities; which, although biblically true, probably isn’t the way that Josephus would record the event. Again, the old Syriac version has a difference in that area, completely leaving out the words “upon the accusation of the principal men among us,” and simply contains the words: “Pilate condemned him to be crucified.”

Altogether, the points that Josephus makes about Jesus are these: He was a wise man and teacher, but did things that man cannot do, like surprising deeds. He won over both Jews and Gentiles who called him the Christ. Pilate had him crucified, but His followers did not fade away, and it was witnessed that he appeared to his followers again after three days. And from the day of Josephus’ writing, Jesus’ followers were called Christians and they had not faded away. These are the things that we can take away from Josephus’ account. These are the things confirmed by critics to be the authentic record of the first-century historian. It is not necessary to speak of how significant Josephus’ first-century documentation of the life of a miracle worker and wise teacher named Jesus, who was crucified but resurrected three days later, and his followers, called Christians, continue to the day of his writing.

Article by Tanner Campbell.