When addressing the historical nature of Jesus Christ, one issue repeatedly raised is the purported “evidence” of his existence to be found in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the famed Jewish general and historian who lived from about 37 to 100 CE. In Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews appears the notorious passage regarding Christ called the “Testimonium Flavianum” (TF):
“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 at this day.” 
This surprisingly brief and simplistic passage constitutes the best proof of Jesus’s existence in the entire ancient non-Christian library comprising the works of dozens of historians, writers, philosophers, politicians and others who never mentioned the great sage and wonderworker Jesus Christ, even though they lived contemporaneously with or shortly after the Christian savior’s purported advent.
Despite the best wishes of sincere believers and the erroneous claims of truculent apologists, the TF has been demonstrated continually over the centuries to be a forgery, likely interpolated by Catholic Church historian Eusebius in the fourth century. So thorough and universal has been this debunking that very few scholars of repute continued to cite the passage after the turn of the 19th century. Indeed, the TF was rarely mentioned, except to note that it was a forgery. 
It is obvious to all that Josephus would never have said that Jesus “was the Messiah,” or that “he appeared alive to them again on the third day,” since this would mean he subscribed to Christian doctrine. And “if one ought to call him a man” is clearly a Christian reverential remark. Opinion is mixed about the ‘teacher of the truth’ reference. Some have suggested that instead of the blatant “he was the Messiah,” Josephus may have written that “he was believed to be the Messiah.”
When the evidence is scientifically examined, it becomes clear that the Josephus passage regarding Jesus was forged. Here is the famous passage again, with the widely-regarded forgeries in bold, though there is some variation on this among scholars:
“Now about this time there lived Jesus a wise man, if one ought 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 on the third day, as the holy prophets had predicted these and many other wonderful things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
Let’s take a look at some of the evidence:
- It [TF] was not quoted or referred to by any Christian apologists prior to Eusebius, c. 316 CE.
- Nowhere else in his voluminous works does Josephus use the word “Christ”, except in the passage which refers to James ‘the brother of Jesus who was called Christ’ (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Paragraph 1), which is also considered to be a forgery.
- Since Josephus was not a Christian but an orthodox Jew, it is impossible that he should have believed or written that Jesus was the Christ or used the words “if it be lawful to call him a man,” which imply the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity.
- The extraordinary character of the things related in the passage–of a man who is apparently more than a man, and who rose from the grave after being dead for three days–demanded a more extensive treatment by Josephus, which would undoubtedly have been forthcoming if he had been its author.
- The passage interrupts the narrative, which would flow more naturally if the passage were left out entirely.
- It is not quoted by Chrysostom (c. 354-407 CE) even though he often refers to Josephus in his voluminous writings.
- It is not quoted by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (c. 858-886 CE) even though he wrote three articles concerning Josephus, which strongly implies that his copy of Josephus’ Antiquities did not contain the passage.
- Neither Justin Martyr (110-165 CE), nor Clement of Alexandria (153-217 CE), nor Origen (c.185-254 CE), who all made extensive reference to ancient authors in their defense of Christianity, has mentioned this supposed testimony of Josephus.
- Origen, in his treatise Against Celsus, Book 1, Chapter 47, states categorically that Josephus did NOT believe that Jesus was the Christ.
- This is the only reference to the Christians in the works of Josephus. If it were genuine, we would have expected him to have given us a fuller account of them somewhere.
In addition, Josephus goes into long detail about the lives of numerous personages of relatively little importance, including several Jesuses. It is inconceivable that he would devote only a few sentences to someone even remotely resembling the character found in the New Testament. If the gospel tale constituted “history,” Josephus’s elders would certainly be aware of Jesus’s purported assault on the temple, for example, and the historian, who was obviously interested in instances of messianic agitation, would surely have reported it, in detail. Moreover, the TF refers to Jesus as a “wise man”–this phrase is used by Josephus in regard to only two other people, out of hundreds, i.e., the patriarchs Joseph and Solomon. If Josephus had thought so highly of an historical Jesus, he surely would have written more extensively about him. Yet, he does not.
The Suspect: Eusebius (c. 264-340)
It has been universally observed that the famous passage which we find in Josephus, about Jesus Christ, was never mentioned or alluded to in any way whatever by any of the fathers of the first, second, or third centuries; nor until the time of Eusebius, when it was first quoted by himself early in the 4th century in his Ecclesiastical History. The truth is, none of these fathers could quote or allude to a passage which did not exist in their times; but was to all points short of absolutely certain, forged and interpolated by Eusebius. The silence of all Christian commentators before him about such things is pretty good evidence that Eusebius himself was the interpolator.
Following is a list of important Christian authorities who studied and/or mentioned Josephus but not the Jesus passage:
- Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), who obviously pored over Josephus’s works, makes no mention of the TF.
- Theophilus (d. 180), Bishop of Antioch–no mention of the TF.
- Irenaeus (c. 120/140-c. 200/203), saint and compiler of the New Testament, has not a word about the TF.
- Clement ofAlexandria(c. 150-211/215), influential Greek theologian and prolific Christian writer, head of the Alexandrian school, says nothing about the TF.
- Origen (c. 185-c. 254), no mention of the TF and specifically states that Josephus did not believe Jesus was “the Christ.”
- Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 235), saint and martyr, nothing about the TF.
- The author of the ancient Syriac text, “History of Armenia,” refers to Josephus but not the TF.
- Minucius Felix (d. c. 250), lawyer and Christian convert–no mention of the TF.
- Anatolius (230-c. 270/280)–no mention of TF.
- Chrysostom (c. 347-407), saint and Syrian prelate, not a word about the TF.
- Methodius, saint of the 9th century–even at this late date there were apparently copies of Josephus without the TF, as Methodius makes no mention of it.
- Photius (c. 820-891), Patriarch of Constantinople, not a word about the TF, again indicating copies of Josephus devoid of the passage, or, perhaps, a rejection of it because it was understood to be fraudulent.
Conclusion: Josephus No Evidence of Jesus
Although it may well be that we owe Josephus’ survival through the Middle Ages to the unknown Christian interpolator who gave us the Testimonium, it is time to release Josephus from his Christian captivity—and from the bonds of those who continue to claim him as a witness to the existence of a historical Jesus.
Here is a Jewish historian who was born and grew up in Judea shortly after Pilate’s governorship, with its presumed crucifixion of a Jewish sage and wonder worker, a man whose followers claimed had risen from the dead and who gave rise to a vital new religious sect. Here is an historian who remembers and records in his work with staggering efficiency and in voluminous detail the events and personalities and socio-political subtleties of eight decades and more. Can we believe that Josephus would have been ignorant of this teaching revolutionary and the empire-wide movement he produced, or that for some unfathomable reason he chose to omit Jesus from his chronicles?
Destroying the credibility of the Josephus references inevitably places a very strong nail in the coffin of the historical Jesus.
Thanks for reading,
Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 1 – Historical Silence
Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 3 – Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius
- William Whiston, The New Complete Works of Josephus, Kregel Academic, 1999. p 662
- Acharya S.; Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled; Adventures Unlimited Press (October 15, 2004)
- For a more detailed criticism, in The Jesus Puzzle and his online article “Josephus Unbound,” secularist and classicist Earl Doherty leaves no stone unturned in demolishing the TF, permitting no squirming room for future apologists, whose resort to the TF will show, as it has done in the past, how hopeless is their plight in establishing a “historical Jesus.” http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/supp10.htm