Flavius Josephus has been the linchpin of arguments for the historicity of Jesus since he was ‘discovered’ by christian apologist Eusebius in the 4th century AD. Likewise, Ehrman makes much of this:

…on two occasions, at least in the writings as they have come down to us today, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth.

The ‘two mentions’ in current copies of Josephus occur in his work Antiquities of the Jews in books 18 and 20, which was published at the end of the 1st century AD. It was probably due to these passages which Eusebius made use of that we owe the survival of any work of Josephus at all, as his ‘witness to Christ’ was of importance to the christian scribes and copyists who transmitted these texts over the centuries.

It is in Book 18 that the famous Testimonium Flavianum occurs – extolling Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and praising the faith of his followers:

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 at this day.

Finding any credible person in literature who confessed Jesus was the messiah and a ‘worker of wonders’, a teacher of truth and wisdom, who died on the cross and rose again… well that was certainly something worth preserving!

For centuries this was regarded as being authentic words of Josephus, a notable Jew. Jesus was the Messiah. Take that, unbelievers!

But Ehrman is cautious about swallowing this testimony whole:

The problem with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus. We know a good deal about him, both from the autobiography that he produced and from other self-references i his writings. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. But this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make: that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he rose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. In the judgement of most scholars, there is simply no way Josephus the Jew would or could have written such things. So how did these comments get into his writings?

Indeed, once the stranglehold of christian hegemony over scholarship began to weaken after the Enlightenment, secular scholars were free to reject this passage completely as an obvious forgery inserted by pious frauds. The scholarly consensus (including Christians, by the way) for about 100 years was that the mentions of Jesus Christ in Josephus are spurious – not original to Josephus at all in any way, shape, or form.

However, any scholarly consensus is tenuous because it can be overturned in the light of new evidence or new arguments (something Ehrman should remember when citing ‘the consensus’ as evidence). And efforts have been undertaken in the past few decades to rehabilitate Josephus in defense of the historicity of Jesus.

The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus’s Antiquities.

And that is indeed what some scholars are arguing: Josephus said something about Jesus and only the most purple phrases are embellishments of christian forgers.

Indeed, a sort of cottage industry has sprung up among scholars trying to come up with what they imagine the ‘original’ mention of Jesus might have been. Someday these ‘imaginary Testimoniums‘ will perhaps be collected together like the various translations of Basho’s famous frog haiku.

However, it must be noted that it is almost universally agreed that the Antiquities has been the target of forgers, and that the text is corrupted where Jesus is ‘mentioned’. Surely that should give anyone pause in considering it as evidence of historicity.

Ehrman professes not to be persuaded by arguments by Christians, historicists, or mythicists that the whole Testimonium is spurious.

But that is not the main point I want to make about the Testimonium. My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE – some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death – a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.

Which is exactly right: the most likely source for Josephus (or anyone else for that matter) writing long afterwards about Jesus – the supposed obscure dead peasant – would be from christians and their dogmas (not the most disinterested sources of information). So even if Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus are all swallowed whole not one of them stands as an independent source of information useful to an historian.

Having demolished the likelihood of any of these authors as knowing anything about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, where then is reliable information about this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found?


To begin, let’s look at what Pliny has to say about the christians he had to deal with:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.

Note that there is no ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found in the writing of Pliny. Just saying…

Ehrman quite rightly underscores this fact:

This is all he [Pliny] says about Jesus: the Christians worshiped him by singing to him. He does not, as you can see, even call him Jesus but instead uses his most common epithet, Christ. Whether Pliny knew the man’s actual name is anyone’s guess. One might be tempted to ask as well whether he knew that Christ was (at one time?) a man, but the fact that he indicates the songs were offered to Christ “as to a god” suggests that Christ was, of course, something else.

Indeed, we could further wonder whether these christians knew the Christ they worshiped by any another name, such as Jesus. Or whether they thought the Christ they worshiped had recently been crucified on earth (or more specifically Palestine) anytime in the previous 100 years.

That the few words Pliny records about his christians does absolutely nothing to say anything about an historical Jesus (let alone a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ who’d been crucified) tells us quite a bit about the sort of thing that has to be accepted as evidence to make a case for a specific historical reality.

That even under torture Pliny couldn’t get such basic ‘facts’ about the supposed ‘historical Jesus’ tells us even more: there is perhaps a stunning ignorance among some who are called christians about the gospel narratives which emerged around this time. They seem to have no clue that Christ was named Jesus, that he was crucified, that he lived at a specific time in a specific place, or taught anything or warned about the coming ‘end of the world’.

Including Pliny on a list of ‘witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth’ seems rather like padding out the list.




I realize I should try to tease out more what an ‘historical Jesus’ entails: thus far I’ve only put a focus on the phrase ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ because that’s part of the title of Ehrman’s book. In the introduction Ehrman describes him:

How is it that a scarcely known, itinerant preacher from the rural backwaters of a remote part of the empire, a Jewish prophet who predicted that the end of the world as we know it was soon to come, who angered the powerful religious and civic leaders of Judea and as a result was crucified for sedition against the state – how is it that within a century of his death, people were calling this little-known Jewish peasant God?

Contrast this story to what information can be gleaned from Pliny – no Jesus, no apocalyptic preaching, no Judea, no Judaism, no crucifixion.

There’s a rather largish gap between the two. Yes, Pliny’s christians are worshiping a god they call christ, but there’s nothing that indicates recent Judaic roots.


One blog I follow regularly is Vridar –

One blog I follow regularly is Vridar – a blog which explores the origins of christianity (among other things). I find this to be very informative and entertaining:

As a survivor of catholicism I seem to be drawn into debates about religion (especially christianity as that’s the religion that most impacts me personally, socially, and politically).

Not being a believer I suppose I should not waste my time on something which I don’t ‘believe in’ – but OTOH it seems I am still interested in it – how does something which I consider to be so wrong-headed get a grip on the minds of so many people?

Lately the controversy engaging me is the debate between ‘historicists’ and ‘mythicists’ on the origins of christianity: was the story of Jesus really based on a real person who became mythologized or simple a character of literature who became historicized? Ultimately I suppose it matters very little – even if there were an obscure preacher who was elevated to a god it is the legends that grew up around him it is only the ‘myth’ part which has had an impact on history. It is the ‘Son of God’ who matters – no one much cares what a run-of-the mill street-corner preacher might have said 2000 years ago.

But I do find it interesting to consider whether a real person is required to act as the catalyst for this religious movement. That’s why the debate is engaging – how do these cults spawn, metastasize, and spread.