Is Jesus Mentioned in Secular Sources? The Jesus of Josephus, Finale
The majority of critical scholars today neither throw the baby out with the bath water, as the skeptics have, nor swallow the Testimonium whole. These scholars accept an authentic Josephan core within the passage but admit there was likely later Christian interpolation designed to infuse it with greater apologetic impact. This makes sense based on the lack of evidence of its usage by early Christian apologists, and considering the audience for which Josephus wrote. This is why most scholars support a neutral reconstruction of the original Testimonium, such as the following proposal:
Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing] so. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared (See Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, p. 93).
This simple reconstruction has much to commend it. For one, we have noted that it was the Christian community that preserved Josephus’ works, likely because of his references to Jesus. However, we would be hard pressed to understand why any Christian scribe would have wanted to preserve a totally negative reference. Also, the neutral passage proceeds quite smoothly when the specific Christian phraseology is simply removed. Finally, the neutral rendition explains why the early Christian apologists did not know of these interpolations, preserving the passage against complete skeptical rejection.
The neutral reconstruction gains even more credibility in light of the findings of Professor Schlomo Pines of the Jerusalem Hebrew University. Professor Pines published his translation of the Testimonium in 1972 based on his study of a tenth century Arabic manuscript containing the Testimonium:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from the Jews and the other nations became disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonders (S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavium and Its Implications, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanites, 1971, p. 16; quoted in Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 97).
Philosopher and theologian Gary Habermas argues that these may be the very words of Josephus because his references to Jesus’ alleged Messiahship and resurrection are considerably subdued and conditional compared to the received text, and there is no reference implicating the Jews in Jesus’ death. There is a sense in which Josephus is straddling the fence, honoring his ethnic heritage while at the same time treading lightly with his Roman patrons, which would be quite consistent with our historical understanding of Josephus.
If we accept the neutral reconstruction of the Testimonium, and, as we have argued above, there is good reason to do so, we still find some very valuable information about the historical Jesus and his followers. We learn that Jesus existed, and that he was a teacher of truth; that he gathered quite a following and performed amazing works; that the Jews and the Romans, particularly Pilate, were both involved in the verdict that led to his execution by crucifixion; and that his followers bear his name and enjoy an on ongoing love relationship with him, despite the death of their leader. Furthermore, Josephus was a first century Jew growing up and living in
So we have come full circle and have demonstrated that evidence for the life of Jesus Christ exists in texts outside of the Bible. In fact, if we had nothing but the extra-biblical evidence available today, we could easily reconstruct the core story of Jesus and the early rise of Christianity. This being said, must we go outside of the gospels in order to establish the historicity of Jesus Christ? The answer is “no.” Any discussion concerning the extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus, as useful as this evidence may be, must always have as its purpose the intent of returning us to the complete accounts of him in the gospels.
We need not apologize for the gospels nor be discouraged by those who claim that these are biased accounts by men who had personal agendas. The burden of proof for this claim rests upon the critic. No ancient biographies enjoy greater historical attestation than the gospels in the Bible, and in the end, we must turn from Josephus to the gospels to learn all there is to know about the historical Jesus, for it is within these documents that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith ultimately meet.
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