Many today have suggested that the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, may never have existed or was a mythical figure. To counter such claims, it would be important to have independent, non-biblical accounts or witnesses that testify of his existence and life from the time as near as possible to the first century when he lived. The Roman Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, provides the best, earliest description of Jesus of Nazareth from a non-Christian author. I will provide an overview of that description here.
This artistic rendition might bring to mind Jesus of Nazareth to many people, but it could just as well have been Flavius Josephus, who began life as an upper-class, well-educated Jew, Joseph ben Mathias, living in Jerusalem the first 30 years of his life.
Josephus wrote two large historical works, The Antiquities of the Jews, and The Jewish Wars. The first work contains a single, but substantial description of Jesus. Josephus himself summarizes The Antiquities at its end writing:
“I shall put an end to these Antiquities, which are contained in twenty books, and sixty thousand verses. And if God permit me, I will briefly run over this war again, with what befell us therein to this very day, which is the thirteenth year of the reign of Caesar Domitian [that is, 93 –94 AD], and the fifty-sixth year of my own life."
From this we learn that Josephus composed this work in the first century, and was born in the year 37, thus being a contemporary eyewitness—although not to Jesus himself, but to the very earliest Christians and the wide-held view of their origins.
In book 18 of the Antiquities, in Chapter 3 Josephus wrote:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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 Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
This passage is of such remarkable testimony that it has engendered much speculation and criticism over the centuries as to its authenticity. It is widely known as the Testamonium Flavianum. Scores of research articles have been written on the veracity and implications of this one passage. To many critics, the passage contains more than one unreasonable statement for a Jew who was not a Christian. In fact, the majority of scholars today agree that some parts of this passage were likely later enhanced by Christian translators. This theory is possible, if not likely, because the earliest manuscripts we have of The Antiquities date to the Middle Ages. But still, many earlier authors often quote this passage from the third century on. Overall, most scholars today believe the core or majority of the passage was written by Josephus and copied thereafter in its unaltered form. The statement “He was the Christ” is the most problematic.
My view on this is influenced by the knowledge that Josephus frequently was not conveying his own knowledge, but rather that related to him by those most involved in his subject matter—in this case the Christians or those who knew of them. Thus, Josephus is not claiming all these things to be true, but only believed to be true by some people of his day. This view is supported by the discovery of a 12th century Syriac version of this passage written in the chronicle of Michael the Syrian. This Syriac (Aramaic) version of this phrase reads not “he was the Christ”, but “he was believed to be the Messiah (Christ).”
Thus it seems the Testamonium Flavianum relates to us the widely held knowledge of what people knew of this new Christian sect in the first century—that
(1) Jesus lived and was crucified during the then recent reign of Pontius Pilate in Judea,
(2) he was thought to have been a wise man who performed marvelous deeds, and
(3) he was believed by his followers to be more than a man, in fact to be the messiah foretold of by the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, supported by
(4) the belief he had been resurrected on the third day following his crucifixion.
Such a written testimonial by a first century contemporary, Flavius Josephus, is strong evidence that the New Testament gospels are relating to us the accounts of a real person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who was the founder of what we know today as Christianity.