Was the Hypothetical Vorlage of the Testimonium Flavianum a “Neutral” Text? Challenging the Common Wisdom on Antiquitates Judaicae 18.63-64

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Even if one accepts the most widespread view about the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.63-64)—i.e., that the text is basically Josephus’s but with some Christian interpolations—a decision on the nature of the alleged original text is still pending. Although a number of scholars have asserted that it contained some unfavorable references to Jesus, the overwhelming majority assert nowadays that it was originally neutral. The aim of the present discussion is to reassess the contemporary discussion on Josephus’s text in order to ascertain which is the most plausible hypothesis regarding the nature of its Vorlage. This article contends that the arguments advanced to support the view of a “neutral” text do not stand up to close examination, and it offers several reasons indicating that the Vorlage must have been at least implicitly negative.

  • 5

    See Leonardus Van Liempt, “De Testimonio Flaviano,” Mnemosyne 55 (1927): 109-16 and Albert A. Bell, “Josephus the Satirist? A Clue to the Original form of the ‘Testimonium Flavianum,’ ”jqr 67 (1976): 16-22, esp. 17.

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  • 8

    See, e.g., Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, Maine: Hendrickson, 1992), 169.

  • 18

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 95.

  • 19

    Ibid., 95-99.

  • 23

    Walther Bienert, Der älteste nichtchristliche Jesusbericht, Josephus über Jesus: Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des altrussischen ‘Josephus’ (Halle: Akademischer Verlag, 1936), 298 states: “Selten in der Weltgeschichte ist Jesus so ungerecht, so gehässig dargestellt worden wie durch den Juden Josephus.” According to Eisler, Brandon, and others, Josephus called Jesus a γόης; this is possible, but uncertain.

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  • 25

    In fact, Graham N. Stanton, “Jesus of Nazareth: A Magician and a False Prophet who Deceived God’s People?” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ. Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (ed. Joel B. Green and Max Turner; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 164-80 at 171 states that the mooted original text was only “mildly hostile.” Graham Twelftree, “Jesus in Jewish Traditions,” in The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels (vol. 5 of Gospel Perspectives; ed. David Wenham; Sheffield: jsot Press, 1985), 289-342 at 308 refers to several remarks in the text as “possibly slightly derogatory.”

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  • 27

    See, e.g., Oscar Cullmann, Der Staat im Neuen Testament (2nd ed.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1961), 27.

  • 29

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 96. See also Meier, “Jesus in Josephus,” 87 and Friedrich Wilhelm Horn, “Das Testimonium Flavianum aus neutestamentlicher Perspektive,” in Josephus und das Neue Testament, 117-36, esp. 135.

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  • 34

    Carleton Paget, “Some Observations,” 582, comments: “All of this seems rather too brief, and may suggest the possibility of omission from, as well as addition to, an original source.” Also, Rivka Nir, “Josephus’s Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 (2012): 32-62 has called into question the authenticity of the passage on the Baptist, but I remain unconvinced by her arguments.

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  • 40

    See Origen, Cels. 1.47 (cf. 2.13) and Comm. Matt. 10.17.

  • 41

    See S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factory in Primitive Christianity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967), 361; Dubarle, “Le témoignage de Josèphe sur Jésus d’après la tradition indirecte,” 496; Reinach, “Josèphe sur Jésus,” 7-8; Bienert, Jesusbericht, 20-21.

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  • 43

    See Eisler, Ιησους Βασιλευς, 1:67.

  • 46

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 96.

  • 47

    On this aspect, see Carleton Paget, “Some Observations,” 552-53.

  • 51

    For a different assessment, see Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 178.

  • 55

    See Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 179.

  • 57

    Whealey, “Josephus, Eusebius,” 74-75.

  • 58

    See Whealey, Josephus on Jesus, 6-12.

  • 59

    See, e.g., Winter, “Josephus on Jesus,” 8. Significantly, Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 93 strives to persuade his readers that “the reconstructed Testimonium appears noncommittal toward Jesus . . . [and] some readers may wonder how this reconstruction, with its several positive statements about Jesus, can be regarded as neutral.”

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  • 62

    Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971), passim.

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  • 63

    Ibid., 21-22, 44.

  • 64

    This idea was advanced by Ernst Bammel, “A New Variant Form of the Testimonium Flavianum,” ExpTim 85 (1974): 145-47. For a criticism, see Whealey, Josephus on Jesus, 190-92.

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  • 67

    Lawrence I. Conrad, “The Conquest of Arwad: A Source-Critical Study in the Historiography of the Early Medieval Near East,” in The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Problems in the Literary Source Material (ed. Averil Cameron and Lawrence I. Conrad; vol. 1 of The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East; Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 1; Princeton: Darwin Press, 1992), 317-401, esp. 322-38.

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  • 69

    Claudia J. Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30-150 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 211, n. 13 has labeled Agapius’s sentence—“he was perhaps the Messiah,” which had previously been deemed “hardly credible” as an authentic Josephan statement (cf. Smith, review of Pines, 442)—“a nonsensical statement from any point of view, probably reflecting an inadequate rendering from Syriac into Arabic.”

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  • 70

    See Theissen and Merz, Der historische Jesus, 81; Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 98; and Dubarle, “Le témoignage de Josèphe sur Jésus d’après la tradition indirecte,” 505.

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  • 71

    See Dale C. Allison, “The Continuity between John and Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 1 (2003): 6-27; Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “Juan el Bautista y Jesús de Nazaret en el judaísmo del Segundo Templo: paralelismos fenomenológicos y diferencias implausibles,” Ilu, Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones 15 (2010): 27-56.

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  • 77

    See Kuhn, “Die Kreuzesstrafe,” 724. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, 57 recalls the fact that Ant. was written “at the very time that the emperor Domitian was persecuting all the descendants of the House of David.”

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  • 79

    Pelletier, “L’originalité,” 185-86. This is why I consider unwarranted the judgment of Geoltrain, “Débat recent,” 113, who comments: “Même . . . en éliminant les affirmations par trop chrétiennes, le témoignage de Josèphe reste encoré très positif à l’égard du Christ et du christianisme et très negative à l’égard des autoritès juives et de Pilate.” Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, 360 argues that Josephus “could have shown how the Jewish leaders, recognizing the pernicious influence of Jesus, had arrested him and delivered him to the Roman governor for execution. In other words, as he represented the Jewish ruling class, of which he was himself a member, as striving to suppress Zealotism, which had caused Rome so much trouble, so could he have made out a good case of their attempt to suppress Christianity at its beginning.”

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  • 80

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 98.

  • 87

    See Whealey, “Josephus, Eusebius,” 78.

  • 88

    Pliny, Ep. 96.7: carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem.

  • 97

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 99.

  • 99

    Meier, “Jesus in Josephus,” 97.

  • 101

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 91.

  • 122

    See Jerome, Vir. ill. 13.

  • 123

    See, e.g., Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 98.

  • 125

    Cf., for example, Ant. 18.310, 20.118, 20.173; and J.W. 1.99, 1.648, 4.208.

  • 127

    Thackeray, Josephus, 142.

  • 131

    See also, e.g., Ant. 17.329 and 19.185. This usually negative meaning is simply overlooked by Meier.

  • 132

    See Eisler, Ιησους Βασιλευς, 1:64, 85. The proposal was endorsed by Bienert, Jesusbericht, 225-27 and Bammel, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” 11.

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  • 133

    See, e.g., Bienert, Jesusbericht, 225; Pötscher, “Iosephus Flavius,” 33; and Stanton, “Jesus of Nazareth,” 170. The verb is used in 2 Peter 2:1 in connection with false prophets “bringing” destruction on themselves.

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  • 137

    Cf., Meier, “Jesus in Josephus,” 102.

  • 138

    Eisler, Βασιλευς, 1:74-75.

  • 141

    See e.g. Meier, “Jesus in Josephus,” 95.

  • 142

    See Whealey, “Josephus, Eusebius,” 97-99. See also Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 93-94.

  • 144

    This was reasonably argued by Eisler, Ιησους Βασιλευς, 1:82; also Barnes, The Testimony, 20.

  • 145

    Meier, “Jesus and Josephus,” 96. It is however revealing that this scholar hastens to add: “though any hostility here is aimed at the Christians, not Jesus.”

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  • 146

    Ibid., 99. See also below, section 3.2.3.

  • 148

    Nodet, “Jésus and Jean-Baptiste,” 322 notes: “[L]’effet polémique bouleverse la bienveillante apparence”; cf. Wohleb, “Das Testimonium Flavianum,” 165. It is often claimed that the phrase σοφὸς ἀνήρ and the reference to παράδοξα ἔργα offer a positive portrayal of Jesus, but this is doubtful. We cannot be sure that Josephus did indeed write “σοφὸς ἀνήρ”—it has been often argued that the unaltered text contained the term σοφιστής. But even if we accept the textus receptus, hasty inferences should not be drawn from the use of the same expression in Ant. 8.53 and 10.237 (on Solomon and Daniel). Not only is the context different, but also, in the words of Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 98-99: “σοφός peut avoir un sens très voisin de σοφιστής” (cf. Reinach, “Josèphe sur Jésus,” 10). In Ag. Ap. 1.236, a certain Amenophis is called τὸν σοφὸν καὶ µαντικὸν ἄνδρα, but irony cannot be excluded: this figure is presented as advising the king to clean the land of polluted people, but also as fearing that the anger of the gods would come on him. Be that as it may, Jesus seems to have had some fame as a witty teacher, hence his description as a σοφός (which fits his designation as διδάσκαλος) is perhaps simply descriptive (see above, n. 114). Something similar could be said about the reference to his wondrous acts: “Rapporter les θαυµάσια de Jésus n’était pas forcément compris comme un éloge ou une allusion sulfureuse, parce que c’était plus probablemente perçu comme une simple mention se conformant au genre en vogue des mirabilia”; Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 74.

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  • 156

    See Bardet, Le Testimonium Flavianum, 65.

  • 158

    See the careful argument by Eisler, Ιησους Βασιλευς, 1:69-72.

  • 159

    See, e.g., Thackeray, Josephus, 143; Pötscher, “Iosephus Flavius,” 30-31; Winter, “Josephus on Jesus,” 438-40; and G. C. Richards and R. J. H. Shutt, “Critical Notes on Josephus’s Antiquities,” cq 31 (1937): 170-77, esp. 176. After his thorough review of the scholarly discussion, Carleton Paget, “Some Observations,” 603 states that “there may have been a reference to a θόρυβος,” although he puzzlingly adds: “but this may not have been negative.” Theissen and Merz, Der historische Jesus, 82, assuming that Jesus could not be involved in seditious activities, state that the original text must have contained a reference to “einen befürchteten Aufstand Jesu oder seiner Anhänger” (emphasis original), and they add: “Es wäre verständlich, daß christliche Abschreiber diesen Abschnitt unterdrückten, da ihnen alles daran gelegen sein mußte, jeden Verdacht christlicher Illoyalität gegenüber dem römischen Staat auszuräumen.” But one wonders why Christians would have needed to drop the report of mere suspicions. Such an erasure is by far more plausible if the original text contained a reference to an actual seditious act.

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  • 160

    See Bienert, Jesusbericht, 224-34.

  • 163

    Erik Peterson, “Christianus,” in Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati, Volume I: Bibbia, Letteratura Cristiana Antica(ed. Anselm M. Albareda; Studi e Testi 121; Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1946), 356-72, esp. 363.

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  • 164

    Peterson, “Christianus,” 368-69.

  • 169

    See Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 99.

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