Friday, 30 June 2017

Is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing? Does it even fit the context?

This post answers some common questions about things written concerning Jesus Christ in Book 18 of Josephus’ Antiquities. This book was published about 93AD. These things are some of the most analysed in any ancient Jewish text outside the Bible.


Question: Is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing?

Answer: We cannot assume too much about the length that Josephus goes to when writing about events. Sometimes he is much briefer that one might expect.

Consider what Josephus says about a terrible incident for the Jews in Egypt. He doesn’t say much, compared with the witness Philo. For Philo writes that the Romans in Alexandria (in Egypt) were…

·         “destroying the synagogues”
·         "issued a notice… allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war"
·         "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one"
·         "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures … wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks"
·         "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents”
·         "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers”

Now, in contrast, and look closely, this is how Josephus describes the violence:

·         “There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks” (AJ 18:8)

And that’s it. Talk about brevity! That is all Josephus says on it. Blink and you would miss it. Josephus had his own agendas, and he wrote what he wanted to write. Which was often to make the Romans look better than they really were.

So, is the Testimonium Flavianum too short for Josephus’ writing? No, not necessarily. One cannot conclude anything firm from the brevity of it.

This is the case whether you have a shorter or longer version of the passage in question.


Question: Does it fit the context in Book 18? In other words, does it break the flow of the stories in Book 18?

Answer: The answer to this is simple, and well known to scholars. Why would it not fit the context? The answer is that it is simply because footnotes had not been invented in books in Josephus' day.

Therefore ancient texts, including by Josephus, are littered with breaks in the flow that often don’t fit the context. We are not used to this in modern history books, because authors now avoid that problem by writing footnotes. It is a matter of just getting used to how ancient texts read.


Yes, it does. It has to be handled with caution from a historical point of view. This is because the passage has in it some bits that weren’t written by Josephus but by later Christian scribes when making copies of Josephus. Anyone trained in evidence and analysis can tell you that this does not make the evidence of Josephus unusable. It just means it has to be used with more caution. That means using evidence analysis methods to strip out the bits added by Christians and only using the bits that are left, the bits likely to be by Josephus.

We don’t have to take heed of naysayers who say the whole thing is unusable and was entirely made up by Christians: that sort of thing usually comes in a package of denying every bit of ancient evidence about Jesus, and that for ideological reasons (trying to debunk Christianity) rather than for the painstaking work of writing history responsibly.


Josephus, who wrote in Greek, was a Jewish historian. He had good sources of information on the period in which Jesus lived. Born in the 30s of the first century, and having lived in Jerusalem, he was close to events of his home country in his century. (During a war with the Romans in Judea, he switched sides to join the winning side – the Romans.) He was not sympathetic to Jesus, calling him the so-called Christ. He was a contemporary of James, Jesus' brother. Josephus and James lived in Judea at the same time, and he knew of James' death in the 60s of the first century.


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