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Jesus: Josephus' Account of Jesus
A contemporary's account of Jesus' life
Josephus was a Jewish historian. He wrote around the end of the first century, and his two most significant works were 'Jewish War' and 'Antiquities of the Jews.' Josephus lived through the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and his 'Jewish War' book was based on his first-hand experiences.
It focuses on the period AD 66 to 73. 'Antiquities of the Jews' covers the whole of history up to AD66. Out of twenty books, six covers the period from the reign of Herod the Great to AD 66, the period when Jesus lived.
Josephus mentions John the Baptist once, and Jesus twice. In book 18 of the Antiquities, 63-64, the text of Josephus as we have it today says: 'About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is lawful to call him a man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.
He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the prophets of God had foretold these and ten thousand other wonders about him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.'
In fact, this text is a bit too much of a good thing for our purposes. It seems unlikely that a Jew such as Josephus would have written some of the things in this passage. Most scholars today agree that it has been altered by early Christians seeking to 'improve' it. It seems more likely that Josephus originally wrote something like this: 'About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth.
He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.' Even without the possible additions, notice what this passage tells us about Jesus:
- A real historical person
- A teacher
- A wonder-worker
- Gathered a band of followers, who continued to follow him after his death
However, there is a second reference to Jesus in the works of Josephus. In Antiquities 20.200, he describes how, in AD 62, the High Priest Ananus was deposed because he had illegally 'convened the Sanhedrin [the highest Jewish religious court / governing body] and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, who was called James. They accused him and some other men, of having broken the law, and handed them over to be stoned.' Notice the following points from this quotation from Josephus:
- Jesus had a brother called James
- James was executed by the Jewish leaders in AD 62
- There were claims that Jesus was the Messiah (i.e. the Christ)
There is one other important point to notice in this quotation. Most scholars do not doubt the authenticity of this second reference to Jesus. Yet this passage refers to Jesus as the 'so-called Christ'. This brief comment appears to link back to Josephus' earlier reference to Jesus, and may even show that what he originally wrote there included some such comment as 'Jesus the so-called Christ.'
These pages have been produced by David Couchman MA (Cantab), MSc. The material is taken from the Facing the Challenge course and is used with permission.