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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: What Do Early Jewish Writings Say about Jesus?

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What Do Early Jewish Writings, Such as Those of Flavius Josephus, Say about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Jewish Evidence)

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 3

The twenty-seven separate documents of the New Testament testify to Jesus’ existence as well as providing information about His public ministry. But what about other evidence that exists? Apart from the New Testament what information do we find about Jesus? What do other sources tell us? In this question, we will look at what the Jewish sources have to say.

The Early Jewish Sources

There is some evidence for Jesus’ existence that can be found in early Jewish sources. They include the writings of first-century historian Flavius Josephus, a man named Rabbi Eliezer, and the Jewish writings known as the Talmud.

1. The Testimony of Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100)

Apart from the New Testament, the earliest testimony of Jesus that has survived is from the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus. His work is of tremendous value as he had a unique vantage point to record the political and religious events of the times. It has also been determined that he was an accurate historian.

Josephus was born around the year A.D. 37 in the city of Jerusalem. He became a leader of a movement in Galilee that rebelled against Rome. On one occasion, during the siege of Jotapata, he and his men were completely surrounded by the Roman army. They decided, by unanimous vote, to commit suicide. Josephus was to be the last to take his own life. Instead, he gave himself up to the Romans after all of his men had killed themselves. He gained the favor of the Emperor Vespasian and well as his son Titus by agreeing to persuade the Jews to give up their revolt against Rome. He was soon seen as a traitor against his own country.

Despite his lack of personal integrity, Josephus has left us with a number of written works. They include two major works known as: “Jewish History,” or “Antiquities of the Jews” and “Wars of the Jews.”

These two works comprise 1,800 pages. “Wars of the Jews,” or Bellum Judaicum as it called is in Latin, is an account of the Jewish wars from the time of Antiochus IV, 170 B.C, until the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The work was published in A.D. 77.

Antiquitates Judaicae, as it is called in Latin, or “Jewish “History,” or “Antiquities,” was published in A.D. 93. It presents the history of the Jews from the creation of the world until the time of Josephus.

He also wrote a work called Contra Apion, “Against Apion.” This was an answer to a Jewish skeptic named Apion. Josephus also wrote as his own autobiography.

In his writings, Josephus describes a number of characters that are also mentioned in the New Testament. They include: Pontius Pilate, Quirinius, Archelaus, James the brother of Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself.

Josephus’ Reference to James

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus has a reference to James, the brother of Jesus. It reads as follows.

He convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.

The trustworthiness of this passage is not in dispute. In it, we find the confirmation that Jesus had a brother named James as well as the fact that some people believed Jesus to be the Messiah.

The Passages in the Writings of Josephus That Refer to Jesus

Our main interest in the writings of Josephus concerns what we find in his Antiquities of the Jews. In book eighteen, subparagraph three, it reads as follows:

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 who loved him at 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. (Antiquities, XVIII, III)
This passage is known as the Testimonium Flavium. The complete trustworthiness of this passage has been called into question for a number of reasons.
The Various Views of Josephus’ Testimony

Basically, these statements of Josephus concerning Jesus have been treated in three different ways by scholars. We can briefly summarize them as follows.

Option 1: The Entire Passage Was Believed to Be Added Later by Christians

Some believe the entire passage has been written by later Christians. This makes it unauthentic and of no worth as an independent source for the life of Jesus.

Option 2: The Entire Passage Was Written by Josephus

Others believe the entire passage, as it now stands, was written by Josephus. This would make it a valuable testimony to His existence.

Option 3: Part of the Passage Is Authentic and Part Was Added Later

A third point of view believes that the passage contains some authentic material about Jesus, as well as, some later additions by Christians.

Reasons for Accepting Josephus’ Testimony as Valid

There are a number of reasons for accepting Josephus’ testimony, as it now stands, as valid. They are as follows:

  1. The Greek text is characteristic of the way Josephus wrote. The present form of the text fits with everything else that came from him.
  2. The fourth century historian, Eusebius, knew the passage in this form and accepted it as historical. Furthermore, Eusebius is an excellent witness to events in church history.
  3. Other church fathers, such as Jerome and Ambrosius, also accepted the form of this passage as coming from Josephus. This gives further testimony to its authenticity.
  4. The phrases used in this passage, are typically Jewish. Indeed, they not from what we would expect from later Gentiles Christians.
Reasons for Rejecting All or Part of the Passage

There are a number of reasons given as to why certain parts of the passage, or the entire passage, is believed to have been added later by Christians.

Specifically, there are three questionable parts to the statement of Josephus which some believe show that he could not have written it. They are as follows.

First, there is the statement, “if it is lawful to call him a man.” This seems to indicate Josephus believed Jesus was more than a mere human. It is contended the Jewish Josephus would never have written something like this. Since he did not believe Jesus to be the divine Son of God, he probably would not have referred to Him in this manner.

In addition, in this passage, Josephus referred to Jesus as the Messiah, or the Christ. In the earlier passage, which he wrote about James, Jesus’ brother, Josephus refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ.” He realized others believed Jesus to be the Christ but he himself did not believe this.

Third, in this passage, Josephus says that Jesus rose from the dead. It is not likely Josephus would claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In addition, it has been argued that the church Father Origen did not know the text in its present form. He cites the passage but not in the same form as we have it today. This has led to the theory that the passage was added sometime after he lived.

There is something else. The writings of Josephus were copied by “Christian” copyists. This would increase the possibility that the text may have been added to somewhere down the line to portray Jesus in a more favorable light.

They Are Not Necessarily Unsolvable Problems

To some, these three portions in the testimony of Josephus are not necessarily unsolvable. The usual responses are along this line.

The phrase, “if it is lawful to call him a man” may not be Josephus’ statement that Jesus was divine. Since he had earlier referred to Jesus as the so-called Christ, this reference may be understood in that light.

It is also possible that this statement was later added by Christians. However, this does not take away from the fact that the basic trustworthiness of this passage seems to be established.

The concept of the Messiah among the Jews at that time was not always clear. Josephus, for example, also understood Vespasian as fulfilling the office of the Messiah. Josephus may have accepted Jesus to be the Messiah, in some sense, without being a believer in Him in the New Testament sense of the term. Again, it is possible that this statement was added by later Christians.

Furthermore, what Josephus said about the resurrection may only be an indication of what he knew Jesus’ followers believed about Jesus. Indeed, it not necessarily what he believed or what he thought was true.

The fact that Christians were responsible for copying the text of Josephus does not necessarily mean they added to what he wrote or invented the entire passage. Indeed, the description in Josephus is very Jewish; it is not how later Gentile Christians would describe Jesus.

The Passage Belongs in the Writings of Josephus

Whether or not the entire passage is genuine, there is strong evidence that it belongs in the writings of Josephus.

What We Learn from Josephus about Jesus

There seems to be no good reason to dismiss the entire account of Josephus as unauthentic. In fact, a good case can still be made for accepting the entire passage as authentic. This being the case, the following historical facts can be derived from Josephus’ statement.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth existed.
  2. Some people believed Him to be the Messiah.
  3. He had many disciples from both Jews and Gentiles.
  4. He was condemned to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.
  5. His disciples testified that Jesus rose from the dead three days after His death.
  6. His disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Christ.
  7. Many Christians existed at the time Josephus’ wrote.

Josephus, therefore, adds corroborating testimony to Jesus. While not a contemporary, he lived and wrote about sixty years after the events of Jesus’ ministry, his information is valuable because it confirms the basic outline of New Testament events. We have discovered that Josephus has proven to be an accurate historian on other matters which he wrote about. This being the case, his reference to Jesus, whether or not entirely authentic, is a valuable early testimony.

The Arabic Text of Josephus’ Statement about Jesus

The text of Josephus’ various works have been transmitted to us in Greek. However, in 1972, an Arabic text of Josephus was discovered and translated. What is of interest to us is that the section than mentions Jesus is slightly different in the Arabic version than in the Greek version.

There are a number of scholars who believe this text is closer to what Josephus originally wrote. It still testifies to Jesus’ existence without acknowledging Him as the Messiah. Whatever, the case may eventually be, Jesus’ existence is confirmed, as well as a number of important details about Him, by the writings of this first-century Jewish writer.

2. Rabbi Eliezer (around A.D. 90)

A second possible early Jewish testimony to Jesus is from a man named Rabbi Eliezer. Eliezer is believed to have written the following in the last decade of the first century. We read the following description of what he said:

Rabbi Eliezer said, Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of woman, who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and to cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave the power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke. Give heed that you go not astray after that man; for it is written, God is not man that he should lie. And if he says that he is God he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he depart and comes again at the end. He says and he shall not perform.

Though Rabbi Eliezer does not name the person under consideration, it is obviously Jesus. Balaam was one of the derogatory terms used for Jesus in early Jewish writings. The traditional Jewish explanation of Jesus is one who led people astray.

This text confirms the claims of the New Testament that Jesus was God Himself. It also corroborates Jesus promise that He would come again. Therefore, from a hostile source, we have confirming evidence about certain aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry.

3. The Talmud

The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings constituting their religious and civil law. They were completed by A.D. 500. The Talmud contains references to Jesus. They are as follows:

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going to be stoned in that he has practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone know aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover. (The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, “Eve of Passover”)

This reference about Jesus is looked at two different ways among scholars.

Some see it to be suspect. For one thing, the reference to Jesus is late; it is not from an early source. There are a number of things about it that are historically suspect. The idea that Jesus was going to be stoned to death is not historical. Neither is the idea that there were forty days in which people could come forward in His defense. This passage does contain the conventional Jewish explanation that Jesus practiced sorcery.

In addition, it says that Jesus was hanged. While this could possible be a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion, hanging on a tree, some believe it refers to another type of death. Whatever the case may be, this reference is too late to be of any help in independently confirming Jesus’ existence.

However, others see this text as corroborating a number of facts about Jesus. The gospels do say that people attempted to stone Jesus on certain occasions.

The idea that a herald went out for forty days to testify to the charges against Jesus and look for witnesses to come to His defense is not found in the New Testament. In fact, the only witnesses that were looked for at Jesus’ trial were false witnesses! Hanging is indeed seen as synonymous with crucifixion.

This reference does corroborate the New Testament picture of how unbelievers viewed Jesus. They accused Him of being demon-possessed. We read of this in Matthew:

But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” (Matthew 12:24 NLT)

This reference also confirms that Jesus death took place at the time of the Passover. What we can conclude about this reference, though admittedly later in history, is that the charges against Jesus are consistent with what other sources tell us.

The Talmud contains a further reference to Jesus which says Jesus was born out of wedlock. This is also consistent with the attitude toward Jesus found in the New Testament. The Jewish religious leaders accused Him of being an illegitimate child. Jesus said,

“No, you are obeying your real father when you act that way.” They replied, “We were not born out of wedlock! Our true Father is God himself.” (John 8:41 NLT)

We know that there was continuing controversy over Jesus’ parentage. An ancient testimony attempts to make Jesus father a Roman soldier by the name of Panthera.

While both of these references contain information that is, in some ways, consistent with the New Testament account of how the Jewish leaders viewed Jesus, they are too late in history to be of any real historical worth.

The Jews Did Not Give Many Details about False Teachers

It should be noted that the ancient Jewish writings did not go into real detail about any of the teachers they considered to be false. It was not their purpose, or their desire, to write very much about those whom they considered to be blasphemers or liars. Therefore, we should not expect to find many references in their writings about Jesus.

There Is Some Independent Confirmation of Jesus

Consequently, from the Jewish evidence we now possess, there is relatively little independent information that can establish anything certain about Him.

What little it does tell us corroborates the New Testament claim that Jesus was a teacher who had certain disciples that followed Him. In His ministry, He healed the sick, worked miracles, and cast out demons. It also confirms that from the beginning, the Jewish leadership considered Jesus to be a false teacher and a deceiver of the people.

All of these facts further substantiate the New Testament account of Jesus.

Summary – Question 3
What Do Early Jewish Writings, Such as Those of Flavius Josephus, Say about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Jewish Sources)

There is no written testimony to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth in Jewish sources that were contemporary with Him. At least, nothing written has survived. The sources we do have are later in time.

The earliest and most helpful source is that of first-century writer Flavius Josephus. He mentions a number of facts about Jesus which are consistent with the things that are recorded in the New Testament.

For example, from Josephus we learn that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Furthermore, there were some people who believed Him to be the promised Messiah. Josephus wrote that Jesus had many disciples from both Jews and Gentiles.

We also find that Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate but His disciples testified that Jesus rose from the dead three days after His death. In addition, Josephus said His disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Christ. Many Christians existed at the time Josephus’ wrote. These facts are consistent with the New Testament account of Jesus.

While the passage found in Josephus’ writings about Jesus is in dispute, there are still good reasons to believe that some, if not all of it, is valid.

The later Jewish references are of no independent historical worth. They continue promoting the idea that Jesus was a sorcerer who practiced magic, as well as one who had an illegitimate birth. They attempted to make Him out as a deceiver and blasphemer, and by doing so, admitted that He existed. This description is consistent with how unbelievers viewed Him.

What we can conclude from these writings is that they confirm some of the basic facts of the New Testament account of the life and ministry of Jesus from how hostile sources would look at Him.

How Do We Know That a Person Named Jesus of Nazareth Truly Existed? ← Prior Section
What Do Early, Non-Jewish Writings Tell Us about Jesus? Next Section →
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