In Book XX of his Jewish Antiquities, first-century historian Flavius Josephus refers to the death of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ.” Many scholars consider this declaration to be authentic. However, some doubt the genuineness of another statement in the same work concerning Jesus. This passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, reads:
“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.”—Josephus—The Complete Works, translated by William Whiston.
Since the end of the 16th century, a heated debate has raged between those who believe that this text is authentic and those who doubt that Josephus wrote it. Serge Bardet, French historian and specialist in classical literature, has sought to untangle the threads of this debate that have become so knotted over the past four centuries. He published his research in a book entitled Le Testimonium Flavianum—Examen historique considérations historiographiques (The Testimonium Flavianum—A Historical Study With Historical Considerations).
Josephus was not a Christian author. He was a Jewish historian; hence, much of the controversy centers on the designation of Jesus as being “the Christ.” On analysis, Bardet asserted that this title corresponds “in every respect to the Greek usage of employing the [definite] article for the names of people.” Bardet added that from a Judeo-Christian perspective, “not only is the use of the term Christos by Josephus not an impossibility” but it is a clue that “critics have in general been greatly wrong to overlook.”
Could it be that the text was embellished by a later forger imitating Josephus’ style? Drawing on historical and textual evidence, Bardet concluded that such an imitation would be almost miraculous. It would require a forger with “a talent for imitation hardly without equal in all antiquity,” in other words, one who was “as Josephan as Josephus.”
So why all the fuss? Identifying the heart of the problem, Bardet specified that “there are doubts about the Testimonium—in contrast with the majority of ancient texts—simply because questions have been raised about the Testimonium.” He goes on to say that the positions adopted over the centuries are based more on “ulterior motives” than on deductive analysis of the text, which leans heavily in favor of its authenticity.
Whether Bardet’s analysis will change the opinion of scholars on the Testimonium Flavianum remains to be seen. It has convinced one eminent specialist of Hellenistic Judaism and primitive Christianity, Pierre Geoltrain. He had long considered the Testimonium to be an interpolation, even poking fun at those who believed in its authenticity. But he changed his opinion. He has concluded that Bardet’s work is the reason for that change. Geoltrain has now declared that “nobody should henceforth dare to speak of the ‘implausible testimony’ of Josephus.”
Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses have even more convincing reason for accepting Jesus as the Christ—that found in the Bible itself.—2 Tim. 3:16.