Josephus and Jesus III: Estimating a plausible Testimony

dig med mauscripts dot orgWhat if Josephus did write something about Jesus? It would likely have resembled a short mention that Tacitus wrote two decades afterward that explained why Christians are called that. This estimate stems from a Tenth Century Arabic language report of a different version of Josephus’ Testimony.

What Agapius saw

From Agapius of Hierapolis’ Book of the Title Part 2,

At that time there was a wise man named Jesus, whose life was perfect, his virtues were recognized, and many Jews and Gentiles became his disciples. And Pilate condemned him to death on a cross, and those who had become his disciples, preached his doctrine. They claimed that he appeared to them alive three days after his passion. Maybe he was the Messiah, about whom the prophets had spoken of miracles.

This is more credibly Josephus’ composition than the received version. It is also different from what arises from typical modern “interpolation” theories, which remove selected portions of the received text, and suppose whatever remains to be the original. For example, following guidance at the Early Christian Writings site, an interpolation theory might rewrite the received version as follows.

(Antiquities 18.3.3). 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 these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.

In contrast, Agapius’ Testimony tells a different story from the above version, not just a shorter one. Jesus was a wise and virtuous man, but not

Jesus and the Canaanite woman

Jesus attracted some Gentiles, according to the Gospels, even though he did not seek them.

a wonder worker. Pilate oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, not the principal Jews. Jesus’ messianic claim is explained, not endorsed. The prophets, dear to Josephus’ heart, wrote about a future Messiah impersonally, not about Jesus being that Messiah. Those prophets didn’t predict that their Messiah would appear to anybody on the third day after being killed. The advocates of Jesus’ Christ-Messiahship claimed to have seen such an appearance.

Agapius’ recitation lacks the last several words of the received version, concerning the etymology of the word Christian and that there were Christians in Josephus’ day. However, Agapius was writing in the Tenth Century to a Christian and possibly Muslim audience, so the term Christian and its origins were more plausibly old news to Agapius’ first readers than to Josephus’.

We have evidence that there was Roman interest in the roots of the word and of the Christian movement at around Josephus’ time. Tacitus, wrote the following about twenty years later, in connection with his reflections on Nero’s persecution (Annals 15: 44),

… a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease…

“Chrestians” is an alternate form of the word “Christians.” The manuscript evidence is unclear about which form Tacitus used, and the passage makes sense with either spelling.

Where did Agapius find his version?

Agapius had read the Fourth Century Eusebius’ Church History, or possibly a translation or other derivative work. We can say that because within a few lines of his version of the Testimony, Agapius cited Eusebius of Caesarea by name and episcopal title as his source for facts about the succession of high priests. Those facts were something Eusebius had stated at Church History 1.10, almost adjacent to Eusebius’ Testimony of Jesus, which appears at 1.11.7-8 of his Church History  (you can use the previous link again). Agapius reworked the material on the priests, excising some things and adding background information.

Shortly after their accounts of the Testimony, both Eusebius (at Church History 1.13) and Agapius (second paragraph after the Testimony) tell of a supposed exchange of letters between Jesus and King Agbar of Edessa. Agapius’ version is once again different in some details and incidents than Eusebius’.

Agapius makes an error in attributing the Testimony. He seems to place the Testimony in Josephus’ Jewish War, rather than the Antiquities. Regardless, from what Agapius writes, we can conclude with high confidence that Agapius had read some version or derivative of Eusebius’ Church History, both the Testimony and other material surrounding it, creatively engaging what he read to tell his own stories.

With respect to the Testimony itself, we cannot exclude that Agapius (or his intermediate source, if there was one) tried to estimate a plausible original from a pious hash he’d found in Eusebius. Thus, Agapius may or may not have read any version of Josephus directly. We don’t know Agapius’ method.

Eusebius and the wonder-worker phrase

Eusebius’ writings in the Fourth Century are the earliest surviving mention of the received version of the Testimony. It appears in essentially similar form in three of his works: Church History (as already discussed, at 1.1.7-8), the Proof of the Gospel 5.5, and the closely related Theophany 5.43 (the Testimony and related material there is plainly copied over from the Proof).

Church History says the Testimony comes after Josephus’ narration of the story of John the Baptist. In his other two mentions, Eusebius places the Testimony where we now find it, among the other stories about Pilate’s administration, which come shortly before the John the Baptist material. This suggests that Eusebius was working from notes or memory on at least some of the three occasions. It is also possible that Eusebius had seen one or more different versions of Josephus’ Antiquities than we have. We know from the Paulina and Mundus example of an earlier post that things did move around in this book.

Eusebius makes two different rhetorical uses of the Testimony. In the Church History, he rebuts a phony propaganda document which the Imperial government had circulated in the early Fourth Century. That document is lost, but it claimed that Pilate had told his bosses that Jesus and John the Baptist were nasty fellows. The Testimony, in any known form, depicts Jesus as a good guy. Sappy Christian confessions would diminish the usefulness of the Testimony to vouch for Jesus’ character. Eusebius is better served by the writings of a fully committed Jew than those of a Christian wannabe.

In the Proof and the Theophany, Eusebius counters doubts about the reliability of the Gospels as sources about Jesus and his miracles. While Eusebius could have been among the first apologists to answer the notorious Fourth Century forgery of Pilate’s reports, counteraplogists had been debating the miracle stories since the Second Century (as discussed in an earlier post). It is odd that it fell to a Fourth Century apologist to break the Christian silence about a major Jewish historian’s supposed endorsement of Jesus’ contested reputation for working wonders.

How Eusebius used the Testimony to support Jesus’ miraculous career is also remarkable. In the Proof  he emphasizes the part of the Testimony where Jesus attracts both Gentile and Jewish followers.

If, then, even the historian’s evidence shews that He attracted to Himself not only the twelve Apostles, nor the seventy disciples, but had in addition many Jews and Greeks, He must evidently have had some extraordinary power beyond that of other men. For how otherwise could He have attracted many Jews and Greeks, except by wonderful miracles and unheard-of teaching?

That’s a strained argument. Plenty of teachers draw students without doing magic tricks. No wonder earlier apologists had defended the the miracle lore on other grounds.

On the other hand, the received Testimony says flatly that Jesus was a “doer of wonderful works.” Wouldn’t that have been worth pointing out as a non-Christian historian’s finding about miracles?

Apparently yes. Although Eusebius misses that opportunity in his Proof , he recalls the handy phrase in his later Theophany . The mention there is brief. The bulk of the article in the Theophany is still devoted to the same strained “How else could Jesus draw a mixed crowd?” argument. The short additional note about the wonderful works phrase seems like an afterthought, perhaps even an interpolation.

Josephus’ actually having mentioned Jesus’ miracles has a lot going against it. Eusebius missed its clear rhetorical potential at least once, as other defenders of the miracles before him had missed it. Agapius omitted it. It is grammatically integrated into the blatant “if it is lawful” interpolation. Miracle working is the explanation of the supposedly Jewish writer’s reluctance to call Jesus a man. That reflects the Christian notion that Jesus’ miracles should have convinced Jews of his supernatural status, a major teaching of John. How many strikes and you’re out in this game?

A generous estimate of the “original”

It is entirely possible that Josephus didn’t mention Jesus at all. If he did, then based on Agapius and Eusebius we can propose an “upper bound” on Josephus’ Testimony, an intentionally generous estimate of what might plausibly have been written by Josephus.

Let us start with Eusebius’ version. Remove the fawning “if it is lawful” stuff and what is grammatically bound to it. Christian confessions which Agapius rehabilitates by attributing them to Christians are modified accordingly. Otherwise, omit Christian spin, such as how Pilate was the tool of the Jews who killed Christ. That Christians continued to follow Jesus is retained for its likely interest to Josephus’ original audience. Maybe, after all those adjustments, Josephus wrote something like,

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, a teacher. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. They thought Jesus was the Christ. When Pilate had condemned him to the cross, those that had loved him did not forsake him, for they said he appeared to them alive again the third day. The divine prophets had foretold wonderful things about the Christ. Christians, so named from Jesus, are not extinct to this day.

This plausible Testimony conveys nearly the same information as Tacitus’ etymological note, with different emphases. For example, Tacitus’ incidental remark that Jesus’ crucifixion stopped the movement “for a moment” corresponds with the disciples’ prompt “third day” revitalization. If this kind of Testimony did exist from the outset, then it might have been among Tacitus’ sources, maybe corroborating what he had personally heard from Christians and their persecutors.

Picture credits: For the  first picture, Trinity-Cambridge Library:; and for the other, Vanderbilt University Library;


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