Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, by Alice Whealey. Studies in Biblical Literature

By Robertson, Stuart | Shofar, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, by Alice Whealey. Studies in Biblical Literature


Robertson, Stuart, Shofar


Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, by Alice Whealey. Studies in Biblical Literature 36. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 231 pages. $65.95.

The passage in Josephus' extensive bequest to posterity most discussed today is one not everybody is sure he wrote. The Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus' comment on Jesus Christ, was apparently not of great interest in the first two centuries. This may be because it wasn't available. But interest in this questionable passage since the Protestant Reformation has more than made up for the early lack of it. Alice Whealey's last comment in this book is, ". . . after four hundred years the question of the Testimonium Flavianum's authenticity has still not been settled" (p. 195).

It appears that Whealey shares the view of Louis Feldman, whose influence is strong in her study, that some form of the received text is authentic, though not that Josephus wrote, "He was the Christ." (I will refer to the passage in question as TF.)

Josephus wrote under the patronage of the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors, and apparently all that he wrote was stored in the imperial library in Rome. Christians handed on Josephus' works through the centuries after this library perished, probably at the time the barbarians sacked the city in the early fifth century CE.

A question Whealey doesn't address that is pertinent to the matter of the early Christian use of Josephus is how Christians would have had access to the imperial library before Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity. The received text is first quoted outside of Antiquities 18 in the writings of Eusebius, who wrote after Christianity was a legal religion. Constantine was Eusebius' patron, so he would have granted him access to the imperial library. But was this library moved to Constantinople when Constantine established his headquarters at the eastern capital? How did Origen (185-254 CE) know of Josephus' works, living in Alexandria in a time when Christianity was an illegal religion? This question surely bears on the matter of why Christians before Eusebius didn't make more use of Josephus.

Josephus on Jesus is divided into five chapters. In the first two chapters the author asks what sort of writers cited TF and why? She is very interested in detecting the motives of those who used TF. The last three chapters explore in detail later moments in the controversy, beginning with the sixteenth century and ending with the modern author Shlomo Pines' discussion of the medieval Arabic translation of Agapius of Hierapolis, which he takes to be an authentic citation of TF.

I pass over the author's discussion of the early history of the argument that has been adequately presented elsewhere, as in Steve Mason's Josephus and the New Testament (which Whealey does not mention), etc. It is the discussion of the periods after the Reformation that are the contribution of particular interest here. Whereas the major participants in the controversy are often mentioned in summary form elsewhere, Whealey provides details from lesser-known writers, some of whom may constitute the chief interest in this book for many. Where else can one find such intriguing detail brought together in a small, albeit not inexpensive book ($66)?

For example, the author traces the discussion prompted by the late sixteenth-century legal scholar, Hubert Giphanius, who argued that TF is spurious (pp. 77ff). What Giphanius actually wrote does not survive. Did he actually write what is attributed to him? A report of what he wrote is found in an extract of a letter by Sebastian Lepusculus, a contemporary Greek and Hebrew professor at Basel. One senses the delight in Whealey, the sleuth, as she pursues the question of what Giphanius wrote from the conflicting reports of what he said in the paper trail that followed. Here is a story within a story, as discussion of a disputed passage in Josephus is traced through a disputed passage in Giphanius! …

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