Can We Trust Josephus When He Mentions Jesus?

In the first century, the Romans had a Jew named Josephus to write a history of the Jewish people and the wars that took place in Israel. Josephus’ book Antiquities of the Jews  mentions Jesus twice. The first is brief and merely says that Jesus, who is called Christ, was the brother of James (Ant. Ant. XX.IX.1) The second is lengthier and in some dispute. It appears to us as follows:

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 and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day. (Ant. XVIII.III.3)

This passage is debated at length and good discussion on it can be found elsewhere. A good and fair treatment can be found in The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas (1996, College Press, Joplin, MO, 192-196). Habermas discusses the questions with the passage and gives support for the original passage mentioning Jesus, although admitting some sections are in legitimate question. Habermas states:

There are good indications that the majority of the text is genuine. There is no textual evidence against it, and, conversely, there is very good manuscript evidence for this statement about Jesus, thus making it difficult to ignore. Additionally, leading scholars ont he works of Josephus have testified that this portion is written in the style of this Jewish historian. (192)

Habermas reviews the scholars who have dealt with this passage, as have others. Therefore we will not repeat that here; Christian apologists have dealt with it at some length. For our immediate purpose, we can say for the sake of argument that the passage is in dispute.

It is problematic for the atheist or skeptic to dismiss the Bible outright due to a questionable passage such as this. Atheists throw around criticisms denying that Josephus mentions Jesus, apparently concluding that they can dismiss the historicity of the Bible in the process. A more extensive reading of both the Bible and Josephus reveals a rather solid corroboration about historical details. The list below provides a series of facts presented in both the Bible and Josephus. It is a rather extensive list, with conclusions to follow.

 

  1. Alexander the Great took over the world, including Tyre
    Ant. XI.VIII.3-5, cf Daniel 8:5-8, 21-22 (prophecies Alexander; Ezekiel 26 (prophecies the destruction of Tyre)
  2. The temple in Jerusalem had many riches
    Ant. XII.V.4; cf 1 Kings 10:14ff;
  3. The temple had golden candlesticks, table of showbread, alter of incense, alter of burnt offering, and a veil.
    Ant. XII.V.4; cf Exodus 37:10ff;
  4. The Jews made daily sacrifices to God, according to their law.
    Ant. XII.V.4; cf Leviticus 6:12
  5. That Antiochus, a pagan king, created an abomination on the alter by building an idol upon the alter and sacrificing pigs upon it.
    Ant. XII.V.4; cf Daniel 11:21-35, esp. 31
  6. Crucifixion was done in that country
    Ant. XII.V.4; cf John 19:18
  7. That there was animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, specifically in where the proper place of worship should be.
    Ant. XII.V.5; Ant. XX.VI.1; John 4:9, 20
  8. That the Jews would sometimes need to travel through the country of the Samaritans;
    Ant. XX.VI.1; Luke 17:11; John 4:4
  9. Sacrifices were made at the temple twice a day;
    Ant. XIV.IV.3; Leviticus 6:20;
  10. That the priests were extremely particular about keeping the exact letter of the law;
    Ant. XIV.IV.3; Mark 2:23-24;
  11. That Herod was king;
    Ant. XV.X.2; Matthew 2:3
  12. That talents were the common monetary denomination;
    Ant.XV.X.2; Matt. 25
  13. The region of the Damoscenes was part of the country;
    Ant. XV.X.1; 2 Corinthians 11:32
  14. The people called Gadarenes were in that country;
    Ant. XV.X.2; Matt. 8:28
  15. Agrippa was a king in that  region
    Ant. XV.X.2; Acts 25:13
  16. The Galileans were a people in that region;
    Ant. XX.VI.1; Mark 14:70
  17. Jews would travel to the central city for festivals;
    Ant. XX.VI.1; Luke 2:41
  18. During times of great distress, Jews would put on sackcloth and ashes;
    Ant. XX.VI.1; Matt. 11:21
  19. Ananias was one of the high priests;
    Ant. XX.VI.2; XX.IX.2; Acts 23:2
  20. Felix was the governor of Judea;
    Ant. XX.VII.1; Acts 23:24
  21. Philip was the tetrarch of Trachonitis;
    Ant. XX.VII.1; Luke 3:1
  22. Felix was married to Drusilla;
    Ant. XX.VII.1; Acts 24:24
  23. Agrippa was connected with Bernice, but never referred to as married;
    Ant. XX.VII.1-3; Acts 25:13
  24. That tithes were due to the priests;
    Ant. XX.VIII.8; Numbers 18:21, 26
  25. The tithes to the priests included grain;
    Ant. XX.VIII.8; Deut. 26:12
  26. The correct place of grain harvest was a threshing floor;
    Ant. XX.VIII.8; Numbers 15:20; Matt. 3:12
  27. The temple rituals were not to be viewed by outsiders;
    Ant. XX.IX.VIII.11; Numbers 18:7
  28. The Sadducees were a sect of the Jews;
    Ant. XX.IX.1;  Matt. 16:1
  29. Festus was a governor;
    Ant. XX.IX.1; Acts 24:27
  30. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of judges of Israel;
    Ant. XX.IX.1; Mark 14:55
  31. James was the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ;
    Ant. XX.IX.1; Matthew 13:55
  32. That stoning was a punishment of the Jewish law;
    Ant. XX.IX.1; Lev. 20:2
  33. The proper name of Caesarea Philippi;
    Ant. XX.IX.4; Matt. 16.13
  34. That Solomon first built the temple, then it was later rebuilt;
    Ant. XX.IX.7; 1 Kings 6:1; John 2:20
  35. Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea;
    Ant. XVIII.III.1; Matt. 27:2;
  36. That Pilate would sit public rule upon a judgement seat;
    Ant. XVIII.III.1; Matt. 27:19
  37. That the Jewish leaders were acutely virulent about keeping their laws;
    Ant. XVIII.III.1;  Acts 22:23

 

Conclusion

One might nitpick about the importance of a few of the items in this list. We could counter with the fact that some of them involve multiple facts, and the list is not an exhaustive examination of Josephus. This list will nevertheless suffice to say that the Bible has a rather extensive corroboration in Josephus. We can stand on firm ground in saying that the Bible has a good historical corroboration in a major first century work written by a non-Christian who had no motivation other than documenting history. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to deny the general historical accuracy, and the specifics listed here provide a solid list of support for the particular historical accuracy of the Bible.

We can add to this the list of other sources that historians show corroborate the facts in the Bible. In The Historical Jesus, Habermas quotes over 40 sources outside the Bible that support several hundred facts inside the Bible, and recreates almost the entire gospel account from sources outside the Bible. Some of the sources are hostile to the Christians, providing especially strong evidence, since they have no motivation to help Christianity or Christians.

Particularly relevant is the fact that sprinkled within the many corroborated facts are miracle accounts, words of Jesus, and teachings of prophets claiming to speak for God Himself. A fair reading must conclude that the statements sprinkled within the history must be taken at face value, at leas without preconceived conclusions that it is a historical novel or invented out of whole cloth. The two mentions of Jesus, that he existed and was called the Christ, are therefore given support.

We therefore conclude what the Bible presents as true, namely that it was written by eyewitnesses to the events it presents.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Church History. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can We Trust Josephus When He Mentions Jesus?

  1. John Branyan says:

    Atheists have trouble making up their minds about Jesus. From one side of their mouths, they say everything in the Bible is fiction. Out of the other side, they say the Bible is full of great immorality and evil.

    If you’re selective about your evidence, you can make a strong case for Jesus ever existing. The skeptic’s problem arises when historical evidence is taken in totality.

  2. dwwork says:

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    From my friend Glenn’s blog.

  3. Dean N. Hoff says:

    I do not trust any text other than the KJV 100%, but the second section attributed to Josephus strikes me as false. If he truly believed what the comments say then surely he(Josephus) would have written much more about Jesus.

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