A Different Approach to the Testimonium Flavianum

A common claim by skeptics of Christianity is that Jesus never existed, and they claim that there are no concurrent objective histories that prove it. Of course, the claim that Jesus never existed was called "insane" by liberal Biblical scholar Rudolph Bultmann, who said:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the Palestinian community.

Rudolf Bultman, Jesus and the Word, at 13 quoted from Scholarly opinions on the Jesus Myth by Christopher Price.

Still, the claim that no objective historian mentions Jesus is countered by the fact that Josephus, who was not a Christian, and who lived from 37 AD to around 93 AD, mentions Jesus in the famous Testimonium Flavianum (TF). If you are unfamiliar with the TF, it is a description of Jesus found in the extant copies of Josephus' Antiquities where Josephus not only mentions Jesus, but describes him in very glowing terms. The traditional translation of the TF reads as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats 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 Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.

The problem with mentioning the TF is that it certainly does not seem as if a Jew would make these broad claims about Jesus being the Messiah. Instead, it would seem (and most scholars agree) that the TF has been subject to some tampering by well-meaning, but obviously misguided, Christians.

This tampering has led many skeptics to discount the TF in its entirety and claim that Jesus is not mentioned at all in Josephus. Again, most scholars reject this approach, and there have been efforts to reconstruct the text. (For a treatment of efforts to reconstruct the the original text, see Did Josephus Refer to Jesus? -- A Thorough Review of the Testimonium Flavianum by Christopher Price.)

But rather than try to walk a skeptics through the reconstruction process, it may be more productive to point out that a version of the TF survived not only in the West, but in Arab documents. Agapios' Kitab al-'Unwan ("Book of the Title," 10th c.) has an Arabic summary of Josephus' Antiquities 18.63 which includes the major portions of the Western version of the TF without the most obvious Christian interpolations. This Arabic version reads as follows:

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 themafter his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

This version, with the possible exception of the final clause seems to be free of any Christian tampering. It seems to me that the final clause can be explained easily by the fact that the Arabian scholar was commenting on what Josephus had written.

The simple fact that this version of the TF survived in Arab writings free of any apparent justifiable claim that it has been added by Christians (given the much lower-key description of Jesus) gives great credibility to the claim that the TF was not created by Christians after Josephus' death. In fact, its apparent freedom from taint has been argued by some scholars as making it closer to what Josephus originally wrote. Thus, it seems as if the apperance of this Arab version, while not finally and fully resolving the issue, puts the onus on the skeptic to explain how the Arab version came into existence if it was not originally part of Josephus' work but was in Arab hands before the Christian interpolations.

Addendum 8/19/2005: One of the problems of being a generalist in the area of apologetics is that I may miss some subtle point that a person who focuses on a particular area may have picked up. So it is with this post. Layman, who has done a lot of work in the area of Josephus and evidence for the historical Jesus (as evidenced by the two links to essays he has written in the essay above) has written me a private note telling me that the author of the Arabic writing reference above was Agapius, a Christian Arab and Melkite bishop of Hierapolis.

I certainly acknowledge that this weakens my argument because I thought, being in the Arab community, that the writing was preserved by Muslim scholars who, of course, would have no reason for elevating Jesus or his ministry in Josephus' writings. The fact that Agapius was a Christian reduces the power of the argument, but it does not entirely remove it.

Even though Agapius was a Christian, he apparently still retains a verion of Josephus' work that does not have the overblown description of Jesus and his ministry contained in the Western Text, and the fact that there is no embellishing of the claims about Jesus strongly (in my opinion) argues for the fact that Agapius did not attempt to change the text in any significant manner (other than the mention about Jesus being "perhaps the Messiah" which is explained by some as an effort by Agapius to respond to Muslim claims about Jesus in and around Hierapolis.)

But even though my argument is weaker because Agapius was a Christian, the point remains: here is a verions of the TF which is free from the overt interpolations of the Western Texts (which can be traced to much earlier dates) which argues that it comes from an earlier pre-interpolated version of what Josephus actually wrote. It seems to me that the onus remains on the skeptics to do more than backhandedly dismiss it on the basis that the last sentence is suspect.


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