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Exemplary character: John the Baptist 

Joseph son of Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus — surnamed after his patron, the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius — was the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity. Without his work, much of the contemporaneous history of Israel would be floating in a vacuum. Josephus's vignettes concerning Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus's brother, James, are the only pieces of outside evidence relating to first-century New Testament figures. The issue of their authenticity is, therefore, of major importance. However, before tackling it, let me say a few words about the author and his reliability as an historian. 

Josephus belonged to the Judaean priestly aristocracy. He lists among his forebears the daughter of the Jewish high priest and king, Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai). Born in 37 CE and educated in Jerusalem, Josephus boasted of precocious expertise in the Law. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he studied the "philosophies" of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as the wisdom of the Jewish hermit Bannus, finally choosing to become a Pharisee. In 64 CE, he sailed to Rome where Poppaea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero, was his benefactress.

He returned to Jerusalem before the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion (66 CE) and like many of his upper-class, land-owning compatriots, he first opposed the war. A prompt U-turn soon followed and, aged 29, Josephus became the officer in command of the revolutionary forces in Galilee. His short military career ended ingloriously in 67 CE, when he was captured by the Romans at Jotapata (Yodfat). Taken before Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces, Josephus predicted that he would become emperor. Two years later, the prophecy came true and Josephus was freed. Vespasian returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge of the war. Josephus was then used as an interpreter and negotiator by Titus in his talks with Jerusalem's Jewish defenders. 

Although in the eyes of the revolutionaries he was a traitor, Josephus believed he was serving his compatriots and used his influence with Titus to liberate many Jewish prisoners. He even rescued three crucified acquaintances, one of whom survived. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Josephus followed Titus to Rome, where he was granted citizenship. The financial support he received from Vespasian and his successors, Titus and Domitian, allowed Josephus to lead a leisurely life as a man of letters. He was married four times and his third and fourth wives bore him five sons.

Josephus's works, aimed at glorifying the Jewish people, were primarily addressed to educated Greeks and Romans. The seven books of The Jewish War, covering the period from Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BCE) to the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (74 CE), were drafted in Aramaic and translated by Josephus into Greek with the help of assistants in the late 70s. He tells his readers that both the Emperor Titus and the Jewish king Agrippa II praised the reliability of his history in private correspondence. All his other books were written in Greek.

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October 6th, 2010
10:10 PM
This is all an amazing text to me, who is certainly not a scholar. Do I believe in Jesus? Yes..Do the writings, or supposed writings of Josephus give me pause or doubt? No. Besides being our Savior though, I do find it fascinating to see how other "experts" find ways to mitigate the writings of Josephus, just as they would the Bible----all because of one man, Jesus.

Geza Vermes
February 13th, 2010
11:02 AM
I can reassure Stone, whose comments I appreciate, that I am perfectly aware of the Arabic version of Agapius (see my study in "Jesus in his Jewish Context", SCM, London 2003, pp. 92, 176). As I, with other scholars, consider it not a strict translation but a free re-telling of the Josephus passage, on account of the word limit prescribed for my article, I felt obliged to leave Agapius, a tenth century Christian writer, out of consideration. On the whole, as Stone notes, the Arabic translation would support my contention.

February 9th, 2010
8:02 PM
This article sums up the majority consensus of most scholars at this time. As such, it is cogent and fairly comprehensive. I personally feel that most of his conclusions are fairly well justified as well. I am surprised, though, at his saying that "I belong to the third group and will argue the case for a partial authenticity. The textual evidence — the Greek manuscripts of Josephus, the quotation of the passage in Eusebius, and the Latin, Syriac and Arabic translations — contains no significant variants." In fact, the Arabic translation is significantly different from the others and could even be used to bear out some of Vermes' points: From Agapios' Kitab al-'Unwan ("Book of the Title," 10th c.). The translation belongs to Shlomo Pines. See also James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism. "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 after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." Ironically, some respondents here have called attention to "no text that supports [Vermes'] following assertions and suppositions that some parts should be removed; all existing texts have no significant variation. He therefore SUPPOSES an earlier shorter text on zero evidence." Yet here, in Arabic, is an ms. citation that's no later than the other earliest mss. of the passage that does indeed give external confirmation of both the tampering with the passage that had apparently happened and also of its existence in another version, pointing to the distinct possibility that it was there in Josephus's original from the start. The very fact that this is a relatively early form of the passage bolsters its authenticity together with the validity of Vermes's argument for tampering. It is odd and regrettable that Vermes overlooked these variants in the Arabic translation altogether. Stone

Steven Fodor
January 13th, 2010
5:01 PM
It was a pleasure to read the words of Geza Vermes. Is there any doubt that Josephus confirmed the existence of Jesus? If I listen to Geza Vermes, Jesus lived and existed. Of course without any miracles, and as a natural man. A son of Adam, plainly.

Prof Dilwyn Marple-Horvat
January 6th, 2010
4:01 PM
In his preamble setting out the three stances, Vermes consigns acceptance of the whole text without change to the past, he should add '...and do some scholars today.' His opening position is that it is POSSIBLE to discard some parts as spurious. He then admits there is no text that supports his following assertions and suppositions that some parts should be removed; all existing texts have no significant variation. He therefore SUPPOSES an earlier shorter text on zero evidence. He then admits he is left with only historical and literary-critical analysis to try and identify bits that can be removed or amended. Then, after presenting the text, he claims that bits that are not Josephus are 'easily distinguishable'. I must have missed the steps that took us from POSSIBLE to easy. As has been pointed out by others, there is evidence in John's gospel of Greeks coming to hear Jesus teach, and this is portrayed as very significant by the writer; the Gospel it appears is not just to the Jews. Jesus in the eyes of Josephus? Jesus in the eyes of Vermes more likely.

January 3rd, 2010
2:01 PM
For an in depth and meticulously researched discussion of the "Jesus" passages in Josephus see This arrives at a very different conclusion from that of Geza Vermes.

December 31st, 2009
9:12 PM
What an excellent, reasoned, argued aricle by an eminent academic. What a refreshing change from the amateur internet experts who proliferate on this subject.

Steven Carr
December 21st, 2009
3:12 PM
Geza Vermes writes about possible interpolations in Josephus about Jesus 'Furthermore, a Christian interpolator would be presumed to use phrases borrowed from the New Testament such as "mighty deeds" or "signs" instead of the neutral "paradoxical deeds". ' This is amazing. Why would Christian interpolators be limited to words found in the New Testament? Vermes lines us the sort of persons Josephus is paralleling Jesus to 'Both "wise man" and "performer of paradoxical deeds" take us to plain Josephus territory. Great biblical and post-biblical characters like the priest Ezra, the miracle-worker Honi-Onias (Hame'agel, the circle-maker), and the Pharisaic leader Samaias are regularly portrayed as "just men" and John is called a "good man". More specifically, the legendary King Solomon and the Prophet Daniel carry the title of "wise man", and the miracle-working prophet Elisha is said to have performed "paradoxical deeds". The notion of a paradox is commonly used by Josephus in relation to extraordinary events caused by God (the manna or the burning bush) and to miracles performed by Moses (Ant. 3:37-38) and by the prophet Elisha (Ant. 9:182).' Oh yes, Vermes actually thinks Josephus likened a crucified rebel to Daniel, Elisha, Elijah, Moses and Ezra, and that by doing this 'Josephus plays the role of a neutral witness.' Astonishing.

December 20th, 2009
10:12 PM
The Life & Death of Jesus - History's greatest Cold Case?

Steven Carr
December 20th, 2009
1:12 PM
Vermes writes 'Moreover, the church fathers, Origen (185-254) and Eusebius (260-340), not only attest to the existence of the passage, but also assert that Josephus saw in the fall of Jerusalem divine punishment for the murder of James. Unfortunately, no surviving Josephus manuscript contains such a statement and its authenticity is doubtful. ' So how do they attest to the existence of the passage from Antiquties 20, when no surviving Josephus manuscript contains such a statement? I did like Vermes claim about Antiq. 20 'It lacks New Testament parallels that might have inspired a forger.' I think this means that there is a bit of Matthew 1:16 in the passage, suitably changed to make it grammatically correct. And, of course, Vermes never explains why killing Christians enraged Jews , or why a certain 'Jesus' was made High Priest in place of the deposed Ananus. Surely this James was a blasphemer ,claiming that a recently executed criminal was the Son of God. I guess if James the blaspheming brother of Jesus was killed, then justice demanded that somebody called Jesus was made High Priest. I also liked Vermes on Ant.18. 'He was the Christ" is a common Christian interpolator's confession of the messianic status of Jesus. Nevertheless, the original text must have contained the epithet, "Christ", to account for the later statement about "the tribe of the Christians" named after the founder. The most likely original version read, "He was called the Christ", as Josephus puts it in the James passage. ' Just how circular is this reasoning? Vermes 'Furthermore, a Christian interpolator would be presumed to use phrases borrowed from the New Testament such as "mighty deeds" or "signs" instead of the neutral "paradoxical deeds". The term "paradoxical" is found only once in the New Testament on the lips of uncommitted witnesses of a Gospel miracle (Lk 5:26). ' Vermes actually thinks a Christian interpolator would never have put on the lips of a Jew like Josephus a phrase used in the New Testament as coming from 'uncommitted witnesses'. (as though Luke 5:26 was not full of wonderment at Jesus)

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