Opinion: Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is the only independent source to attest to the existence and fate of Jesus, John the Baptist and James

By Zuleika Rodgers, TCD

I am frequently asked about independent evidence of Jesus' existence as well as those associated with him in the Gospel stories. As scholars like to remind us, the texts of the New Testament are written from the perspective of a community of believers and are not objective accounts of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

While we cannot turn to any eye-witness contemporary detailing the events of Jesus’ life or even of his last days in Jerusalem, we have the later writings of Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. Although his accounts cannot be read as providing accurate details about Jesus and the early Christians, one of his works, Jewish Antiquities, provides intriguing snippets of how Jesus and some of those around him were viewed by an author who was writing around the same time as the creators of the Gospels.

Josephus was born into a Jewish priestly family in Jerusalem in (AD) 37 CE and had become involved in the revolt against the Romans in 66 CE but ended up in Roman captivity before the conflict led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The latter years of his life were spent in Rome (he died c. 100 CE) where he began his career as a writer defending the Jews from various accusations and presenting the values and traditions of his people in Greek to the Roman world.

Siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II. Illustration in Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitatum Iudaicarum). Found in the Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Josephus’ interest in providing a history that explains the revolt against the Romans meant that he included an account of the years in which Jesus' ministry took place. We have his perspectives on Jewish society at the time, on their leadership and also Rome’s role in the region, all vital background information for modern historians of Jewish and Christian history.

He also includes vignettes that mention Jesus, John the Baptist, and James, the brother of Jesus, but it is clear from his writings that he has little interest in, or experience of, the early Christian movement. These characters are presented as part of his stories of Jewish life in the middle of the first century and so gives us a fascinating glimpse of these characters from a non-Christian perspective.

A brief passage in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities Book 18 mentions Jesus and his followers in the context of an account of Pontius Pilate’s governorship in Judea. However, the piece has been deemed highly problematic as some of the language used is unusual and some of the commentary about Jesus does not seem to reflect the author’s views or interests. We cannot corroborate if the text is genuine by consulting an original manuscript, as our earliest version of Josephus’ works date from the 9th to 10th centuries.

While Josephus cannot supplement what we know about Jesus from the Gospel accounts, he does provide external evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus

The authenticity of the disputed passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, was already called into question in the 6th century and has been subject to centuries of debate. The account tells of a wise man called Jesus who attracted both Jewish and Greek followers, accused by some of the leading men which led to his crucifixion by Pilate, but his followers, called "Christians", remain to Josephus’ time. In the manuscripts that have survived to us, Jesus is further identified as "the Christ", who appeared to his followers three days after his crucifixion, and how this was foretold by the divine prophets.

Many scholars today believe that the passage reflects two layers: a basic story original to the writings of Josephus and a later editorial addition that reflects theological views of Christian scribes from a later period related to Jesus’ messiahship, resurrection and the prophetic predictions. It would seem that part of the account is authentic and Josephus had heard the story of this individual many years later and included it as part of his critique of Pontius Pilate’s rule in Judea. While Josephus cannot supplement what we know about Jesus from the Gospel accounts, he does provide external evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus.

In all four Gospel accounts, the role of John the Baptist is to proclaim and identify Jesus, who shortly after Jesus is baptized, is imprisoned by Herod Antipas. It is particularly noteworthy that Josephus is far more interested in John the Baptist than in Jesus of Nazareth and, even more significantly, he does not link them.

Flavius Josephus. Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images

In Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities Book 18, John is presented independently as an example of a Jewish teacher promoting virtue and piety (as well as immersion in his case), while his fate at the hands of Herod Antipas is used to demonstrate a moral lesson. Since Josephus was not born at this time, he evidently relied on some tradition about John the Baptist - the writer's reasons for not linking him with Jesus are not clear and we cannot know if he knew of their connection.

In a passing comment in Jewish Antiquities Book 20, Josephus makes reference to the "brother of Jesus who was called the Christ" adding the name "James". His focus is on condemning the behaviour of the High Priest of the time, Ananus, who condemned to death by stoning a number of individuals, James included, citing the charge of violation of the laws. Some in the city who did not agree with this accusation interceded and this led to the High Priest’s dismissal.

Josephus is the only non-Christian Jewish source to attest to the existence and fate of Jesus and John the Baptist

James is incidental to Josephus’ interest, but his comments do reveal something of interest for the history of the earliest Christians. While Christian sources do not reveal much about James’ role in the group surrounding Jesus, Josephus provides corroborating external evidence for the prominent leadership role James is given in some of Paul’s letters and in the Acts of the Apostles. 

While not adding significantly to our knowledge of earliest Christianity, Josephus is the only non-Christian Jewish source to attest to the existence and fate of Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the significant place of James, the brother of Jesus, in the emerging movement. It is because they have no featuring role in his story - and Josephus does not seem to be in concerned with promoting or attacking Christianity - that this evidence remains important to those interested in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr Zuleika Rodgers is a lecturer in Jewish Studies at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at TCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ