RESPONDblogs: Was Jesus a Real Person?

josephusDid Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, exist? Was he a real human being? Or, as some sceptics claim, was he an invention? I have been looking at various historical sources external to the Bible to see if they can help answer this question.

First century Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus gives a fascinating perspective on the historical Jesus. Josephus was a Jew who changed sides and worked in Rome for General Vespasian. Scholars understand Josephus was not a Christian himself; Josephus had no theological agenda. Yet when he wrote his Jewish War in 94 A.D. he mentioned key people in the early Church; and he mentions Jesus twice.

Let’s start with the second reference because it is the shorter one. It appears in Book 20 and says the following:

Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.[1]

Josephus mentions a man named James. In order to explain which James he is talking about, he links him to his famous brother …namely Jesus. And to explain WHICH Jesus he is talking about (both James and Jesus were very common names at the time) he clearly describes James’s brother as “Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah”.

This is a clear reference to Jesus of Nazareth. But sceptics are liable to shout, “not so fast!” Perhaps the phrase “who-is-called-Messiah” has been added by later Christian scribes wanting to manufacture historical evidence for the Jesus of the New Testament? Could it be possible that Josephus did not originally write the words “Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah” in his Jewish War Book 20…but later Christian scribes made it look like he did? I think this is very unlikely for two reasons:

  1. the early Church Fathers wrote about the same man Josephus is talking about…James…and they refer to him as “the brother of the Lord”. Josephus’s description of James and Jesus uses very different language. Christian scribes would have used the “brother of the Lord” language. We don’t see these words, and this suggests an author who was not a Christian himself – Josephus himself is the best candidate.
  2. this mention of James only makes sense with the full “Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah” comment. Why? Well both James and Jesus were common names, there had to be a distinguishing factor here that identified exactly which men named James and Jesus that Josephus was talking about. That distinguishing factor is – Jesus was famous because he was known by many people as Messiah.

In summary then, Josephus clearly mentions the Jesus of the New Testament in Jewish War Book 20.


Let’s turn now to the more famous first reference to Jesus in Josephus’ work; it comes earlier in Jewish War Book 18. All surviving Greek copies of this text, called the Testimonium Flavianum, say the following:


Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.


Scholars are all agreed that (probably) medieval Christian scribes modified Josephus’s original Greek text to add Christian theology to it to “sex it up a bit”. This counts against the quality of this text as extra-Biblical evidence for the real historical Jesus. But it does not mean we should disregard it, it just means we need to treat the text carefully.

Scholars agree which parts of the text have been added by the scribe; I have highlighted them in italics above. As sceptical scholar James Tabor points out, “we are more than fortunate that these pious scribes had such heavy hands, since their additions appear to be so blatant and obvious, in both placing and phrasing.”[2] We know that, “Origen was an early Church father and [he] indicated that Josephus was not a Christian.”[3] So Josephus would therefore not have written the italicised phrases; his personal declaration of Jesus as the Christ, fulfilment of prophecy and resurrection appearances look like later interpolations.  But in spite of these later interpolations…we can begin to work out what Josephus originally wrote:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:63-64).[4]

Because of the effort involved in discovering Josephus’s original wording, some have therefore dismissed the whole passage as a fabrication. Richard Carrier has commented on this text: “even if it were completely genuine – and it’s not – [it] says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one.”[5]

But Carrier’s theory does not hold water when we examine the Testimonium Flavianum in the light of the rest of the rest of the Jewish War. The language used in this recovered passage does not sound like it was lifted from a Gospel. It reads consistently to the rest of Josephus’s writing style. While it is not impossible that a later forger could imitate Josephus’s writing style, this is far beyond what normal revisionists would do. Licona comments, “(a) the term, “wise man” is typical for Josephus and less than we would expect from a Christian editor, (b) the style belongs to Josephus, (c) the Greek word for tribe [found in Greek translations] is not a typical Christian expression.”[6] But crucially, we also know the Testimonium Flavianum is not a complete forgery because the reference to “Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah” by Josephus in Book 20 requires this earlier reference in Book 18 as essential background; the later reference assumes the reader has already read the Testimonium Flavianum. So there can be no doubt, Josephus originally mentioned Jesus in BOTH Book 18 and Book 20.

Further, we are not forced to try to recover Josephus’s original wording from the interpolated Greek manuscripts. We also have an ancient Arabic manuscript that was clearly translated using a much earlier copy of the Greek text before it had been interpolated by scribes. Professor Schlomo Pines revealed this ancient Arabic manuscript containing the Testimonium Flavianum in 1972. This is different from the typical surviving interpolated Greek ones; it includes a briefer rendering of the entire passage, including changes in the key phrases listed above:

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 among the Jews and the other nations became his 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 have recounted wonders.[7]

Pine’s Arabic manuscript has eliminated much suspicion on the Josephus text; scholars can be certain that they have the essential original wording of this passage now. Pines concludes, “it is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing the original words even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the latter would have had less chance of being censored by the church.”[8] Habermas summarises his resulting position: even though a troublesome historical source to read, “’We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus’, providing ‘corroboration of the gospel account.’”[9]

While Carrier has decided the Testimonium Flavianum is fabricated, the recovered text requires it be taken as genuine history. Why would later Christian scribes wish to improve a Greek version of the text if the text had not already been written by Josephus first?

In final summary, Jewish historian Josephus clearly wrote about Jesus of Nazareth in the first century. He corroborates the New Testament on many details of Jesus’ life and, providing that we treat the Greek version of the Testimonium Flavianum carefully, we can be sure that we have a piece of high quality extra-Biblical evidence of the historical Jesus.

Now it is time to summarise what these extra-Biblical authors tell us about who Jesus of Nazareth was…that is coming up next.


[1] Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist? Search for Evidence Beyond the Bible”, Bible History Daily, accessed March 12th, 2015,

[2] James Tabor, “Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus and James,” Tabor Blog, accessed February 4th, 2015,

[3] Mike Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s Book, The Christ Conspiracy,” Risen Jesus the Ministry of Mike Licona, accessed 4th February 2015,

[4] James Tabor, “Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus and James,” Tabor Blog, accessed February 4th, 2015,

[5] Richard Carrier, “Ehrman Trash Talks Mythicism,” Richard Carrier Blogs, accessed January 31st, 2015,

[6] Mike Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s Book, The Christ Conspiracy,” Risen Jesus the Ministry of Mike Licona, accessed February 4th, 2015,

[7] Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas,” Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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