Jesus, Josephus, and... the Testimonium Slavianum?

(Edited to add: by "recently" I mean mid-March 2010. My schedule is odd. {lopsided g})

Recently, our compatriot Victor Reppert reposted a link to Chris “Layman” Price’s fine essay on the major testimony from Josephus about Jesus (which can be found archived here.) Readers may be surprised to learn that there are a few other references to this testimony in ancient documents, which we can analyze for comparison with text-critical principles, to help derive an idea of the original text. But what happens when we turn those same principles on a very late source for the Testimonium, which has been (almost?) universally rejected as material for comparison--including by Chris? I think the results, while far from conclusive, are at least interesting!

But first, some background for comparison.

(Note: this entry deals with facts and theories very well-known among students of the early history of Christianity, especially on questions of the historical Jesus, and so could be skipped by people familiar with the case so far. Alternately, you could read Chris’ more extensive article, linked above.)

Josephus and the Testimonium Flavianum

As most students of historical-Jesus studies (pro or con) are well aware, a passage exists in the work of the Jewish historian Josephus known as the Antiquities, where Josephus in the midst of relating numerous stories indicting the competency and honor of both the Sanhedrin under the faction of Annas and also the Palestinian governor Pontius Pilate, takes a moment to discuss how they handled a man named Jesus.

The passage is found in all extant copies of this particular book of the Antiquities (18.3.3 lines 63-64), which is admittedly not all that many--like other ancient texts the textual record is poor compared with the New Testament canon documents, but excluding that set as abnormal Ant. is much better than average in the number of copies (and their place/date provenance ranging) which we have available for text-crit purposes.

As it stands, this paragraph, which has received the nickname of the “Testimonium Flavianum” (after Josephus’ patronage name of Flavius, the Imperial family for whom he was writing this history of the Jews from ‘antiquity’ up to his present times), runs as follows in English, more or less:

Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is right to call him a man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who accept the truth with pleasure. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross. [but] Those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and a thousand other things about him. To this day the tribe of ‘Christians’ named after him has not disappeared.

Even though we lack direct external testimony (so far as I know) showing a copy of the Ant. to have any other form than this paragraph, the vast majority of scholars on all sides of the ideological aisle regard the passage as having been slightly but seriously tampered with at some point in its transmission.

One short phrase, “if indeed it is right to call him a man”, and the blunt declarative statement, “He was the Messiah,” seem to be completely out of character for Josephus. He would be risking his life telling his Imperial patrons that a Jewish wise man was the anointed king of the world; or else they would have no idea what the phrase was even supposed to mean. (No qualification is present for explanation. The relevant meaning is assumed to be known by the reader.) More importantly, Josephus in uncontrovertible passages elsewhere shows that he not only has a low opinion of Messianic candidates, whom he blames for the troubles of the land, but also that he considers Vespasian (the military warlord and eventual Emperor who had defeated the Jewish rebellion) to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy! It is utterly unlikely that Josephus would be totally reversing this in a throwaway paragraph intended otherwise to be another piece of evidence against the administrations of the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate.

A longer and more complex sentence is typically regarded as interpolation as well: the one that begins “For on the third day” and ends at “other things about him.” Personally I’m on the fence about it, for the language could be read as expressing the opinion of the people who had loved Jesus from the first and continued to believe in him after his execution (unlike other Messianic candidates of the time, as Josephus relates elsewhere.) This sentence would also serve the immediate apologetic purposes of Josephus, for without it the critique against the “leading men among us” and Pilate would be merely implied at best. Moreover, Josephus does want his patrons to respect the divine prophets of the Jews, and goes to a lot of effort to help them be acceptable elsewhere in the Ant.

The main problem against this sentence, is that if Josephus is prepared (for his apologetic purposes) to accuse the Sanhedrin and Pilate of wrongly executing a man foretold by divine prophets of YHWH, thus by implication a super-important agent of YHWH himself, it is peculiar that he doesn’t spend more time on him in other regards! Against this complaint it might be objected that Josephus was aware that Christians in his day were making divine-authority claims of Christ over against Caesar (including with parallel terminology). To me this seems more likely to be a reason for Josephus to paint Jesus in more acceptable lights (to Roman Imperial eyes) in the passage we do know about--which would mitigate against the inclusion of this sentence as well as the two short ultra-probable interpolations. Most importantly, though, if Josephus wants to impress his Imperial readers with the foretelling of this man’s appearance by the divine prophets whom he elsewhere wants his Imperial readers to respect, then it is odd that elsewhere in the paragraph the language can be easily interpreted to be more neutral: “amazing deeds” is literally “paradoxical deeds”, and the word for “pleasure” is “hedonism” which had no more positive connotations for them at the time than it would for us today. (On the contrary, it’s a bit negative!)

Consequently, then, while I can see some good arguments for retaining the sentence, I typically omit it, too, following the lead of the vast majority of analysts.

There are very few analysts among scholars who try to argue for massive interpolation or outright forgery of the whole passage--a position most popular among Jesus Myth proponents who, understandably, don’t want it there, or at least don’t want it to be referring to the Jesus of the Gospel stories. There are perhaps a few more analysts among scholars who try to argue for the originality of the whole passage--and at least it can be said that they do have positive textual data on their side! (There is a 10th century Arabian-Christian report of the TF, which looks rather like a reconstruction removing interpolations, but which includes the Messianic statement with the qualification “maybe”. However, it is not a copy of the Ant. itself, but a notice from Agapius’ Universal History. More on this in a moment.)

But I accept the general reasoning involved, that in a previous stage before our current copies of the Ant., the TF read as follows (with a more neutral interpretation of meaning):

Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. [For?] he was a worker of paradoxical deeds and was a teacher of people who lustily accept truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross. [but] Those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of ‘Christians’ named after him has not disappeared.

I certainly would have no problem including the sentence about why those who had loved Jesus from the first did not cease doing so. But I don’t need it in there, either.

Yet on the other hand, the report of the TF from Agapius’ Universal History (in a 10th century Arabic copy), keeps a lot of the received full version of the TF, in a tamped-down form (I owe this information to Robert E. Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament, 2000, pp.97-98):

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and 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 three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

This form is interesting in that the sentence about paradoxical deeds and people who lustily accept the truth (which could have slightly negative connotations) is completely absent; and a sentence with a positive but not flagrant approbation is included instead: his conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. The “men among us” are not mentioned at all, as being implicated in Jesus’ death or otherwise--not present in Agapius’ version (which he states he’s getting from Josephus)? Or simply elided past as unimportant (by either Agapius or his 10th century copyist)?

The short phrase “and to die” is mentioned as an addition to Pilate’s condemnation. The reason for why his disciples kept following him is given, but in arguably a tamped-down form compared to the known extant TF texts: the appearances are presented specifically as a report of the disciples. Most importantly, the three most problematic statements in the received TF are either missing (“if indeed it is proper to call him a man”), or found at the very end in a more careful form (“perhaps he was the Messiah” “concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”) This replaces the final sentence of the received TF, which might have been considered pointless by someone in the chain of copying to the 10th century source.

It’s difficult in some of these cases to guess whether the differences occur due to a different form being used by Agapius (or his own copyist!), or whether he is making small clarifications and eliding other topics as being unimportant. (It is even more difficult, though interesting, to ponder to what extent apologetics against Muslim incursion could be expected to result in inclinations to alter the TF in the 10th century Arabic copy, and how-or-why-or-how-far!) Also, it is hard to gauge whether the whole replacement of the sentence concerning paradoxical deeds etc. indicates that this sentence, in the received version, is itself an interpolation, or whether Agapius (or someone before him) thought it sounded too potentially negative and so replaced it with the solid but restrained affirmation of Jesus’ basic decency.

However, I am impressed by both the existence of part of the explanation for continued discipleship, along with the porting of the other part of that explanation to be put, at the tail end, with a more circumspect affirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship. Two of the three widely modern guesses about interpolation are found at the very end (in place of a sentence that would be of little importance to Agapius’ audience), and the third guessed interpolation is completely absent. Yet it isn’t the whole of the longest guessed interpolation which is absent--only the portion that would make the most implausibility coming from Jospehus.

I consider this to be serious (though not decisive) evidence that some phrase about appearances (whether as in the received TF or in Agapius’ version) was found in a prior form of the TF. Fitting such a phrase into the wide-majority consensus reconstruction, would produce something like:

Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. [For?] He was a worker of paradoxical deeds and was a teacher of people who lustily accept truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. [Perhaps including here, ‘...who believed him to be the messiah’.] Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross. [but] Those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. [For?] They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. To this day the tribe of ‘Christians’ named after him has not disappeared.

However: this might not in fact be the original form of the Testimonium Flavianum either! For there is another highly interesting but little-known version of this paragraph, found not in a commentary borrowing from Josephus’ book on Jewish history, nor in any copy of the Antiquities itself, but in one copy of the other most famous book from Josephus, The Jewish War.

I’ll discuss this in Part 2 (now available here), as well as explain why the title of my article refers to the Testimonium Slavianum.

Footnote: R O'Brien has left a comment on at Victor's post "What did Josephus Really Say about Jesus?", posting some remarks from Alice Whealey's 2008 article on the TestiFlav in Syriac and Arabic (Whealey, A. 2008. "The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic". New Testament Studies. 573–590)

She argues that the version preserved by Michael the Syrian is closest to the original:

"In fact, much of the past impetus for labeling the textus receptus Testimonium a forgery has been based on earlier scholars’ anachronistic assumptions that, as a Jew, Josephus could not have written anything favorable about Jesus. Contemporary scholars of primitive Christianity are less inclined than past scholars to assume that most first-century Jews necessarily held hostile opinions of Jesus, and they are more aware that the line between Christians and non-Christian Jews in Josephus’ day was not as firm as it would later become. The implication of this is that supposedly Christian-sounding elements in either the textus receptus or in Michael’s Testimonium cannot be ruled inauthentic a priori."


"This study thus also implies that it is Michael’s Testimonium that is much more important as a witness to Josephus’ original text about Jesus than Agapius’ Testimonium. By far the most important aspect of Michael’s Testimonium in terms of recovering Josephus’ original passage is its reading ‘he was thought to be the Messiah’, because this reading is independently supported by Jerome’s very early translation of the Testimonium, and because it can readily explain Origen’s claim that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore the most important aspect of Agapius’ text is its reading that Jesus was ‘perhaps’ the Messiah, because this reading lends weight to the hypothesis that Michael’s qualification of Jesus’ Messianic status was based on an older exemplar of the Testimonium rather than being created by Michael ex nihilo."


"In arguing that Agapius’ Testimonium was closer to Josephus’ original passage about Jesus than any extant Testimonium, Pines followed a long line of earlier scholars who assumed that Josephus’ original passage about Jesus must have been very different from the textus receptus Testimonium, which these same scholars assumed to have been substantially rewritten by a Christian forger.43 In contrast, in arguing that Michael’s Testimonium, which is generally close to the textus receptus Testimonium and which has clearly been taken from a recension of the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica, is more authentic than Agapius’ Testimonium, this study implies that the textus receptus Testimonium is much closer to the passage that Josephus originally wrote about Jesus than is often assumed. Indeed, the evidence of Michael the Syrian’s Testimonium, used in conjunction with the evidence of Jerome’s Testimonium, indicates that the only major alteration that has been made to Josephus’ original passage about Jesus is the alteration of the phrase ‘he was thought to be the Messiah’ to the textus receptus phrase ‘he was the Messiah’."


Jason Pratt said…
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