Robert Eisler on The Testimonium Flavianum

An extract from

The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist

according to

Flavius Josephus'

recently rediscovered

'Capture of Jerusalem'

and the other Jewish and Christian sources

by Robert Eisler

Originally published in German in 1929.

Translated by Alexander Haggerty Krappe (Methuen, 1931)).

     Robert Eisler's book The Messiah Jesus is a classic of Josephus scholarship. Unfortunately it is long out of print and difficult to find.

    What follows is an extract from Chapter 3 of this work. In this chapter, Eisler reviews the history of the controversy over Josephus' description of Jesus (the "Testimonium Flavianum"), giving a number of interesting details that are not well known today.

    Eisler follows this review with his own speculation as to the original form of the description, of which a brief synopsis is given below, with some additional comments. The major benefit of Eisler's treatment is to remind modern scholars that something can have been deleted  from the Testimonium as well as altered or added.

    The extract includes Eisler's original footnotes, some of which deserve an award for their wonderful obscurity.

            -- G. J. G.

A photocopied edition of Eisler's
entire book is available from:

Good Books Scholarly Reprints
2456 Devonshire Road
Springfield, IL 62703 USA


Chapter III. The Controversy over the so-called 'Testimony to Jesus Christ' in the 'Jewish Antiquities' of Josephus.

'The false pen of the scribes hath made of it falsehood.' Jeremiah 8:8

Josephus Accepted as an 'Inspired' Witness

    For fully 1200 years the church could boast of the sure and undisputed possession of an extremely remarkable testimony, pretiosissima et vix aestimabilis gemma [most precious and inestimable gem], as the old Viennese court librarian Petrus Lambeccius called it, a testimony rendered by an outsider to the truth of the historical foundations, not only of its faith, but even of its dogma, its creed. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, a man born just a few years after the traditional date of the death of Christ, seemed to affirm in the eighteenth book of his Jewish Antiquities that 'Jesus called the Christ' did so many and such great miracles that one might hesitate to regard him as a man at all; that he taught the truth; that this true teaching of his was received with joy by multitudes both of Jews and Gentiles; that this Jesus was really the Christ, that is, the Messiah, expected by the Jews, for the thousands of wonderful things which he did and suffered exactly corresponded with what the inspired prophets had foretold of the expected redeemer of their people; that he was crucified by Pilate on the indictment of the Jewish leaders, but on the third day reappeared alive to his disciples, who consequently did not waver in their allegiance to him, the result being the survival, at the time of the witness Josephus, of the new race called Christians after the founder of their sect.

    Throughout the eleven long centuries which separate the edict of the toleration of Milan (312) from the disruption of the Occidental Church with the Protestant Reform -- in other words, the time lying between the Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius and that of Cardinal Baronius -- not a doubt was cast on the authenticity of Josephus' precious Testimonium, which was constantly quoted and turned to good account by all Church historians. The obviously paradoxical fact that an unbelieving Jew should have acknowledged Jesus to have been the true Christ foretold by the prophets was attributed to the peculiar and miraculous power of the Redeemer, which had forced as it were even a recalcitrant infidel to yield to its spell and extracted a blessing from this second Balaam who must have set out to curse. The important fact that he did not himself believe in Jesus as the Christ did not impair the value of his testimony in the eyes of the Church. On the contrary, it was strengthened by the fact that even an unbeliever and an adversary of the faith had reluctantly to confess to its truth. 'And therein the eternal power of Jesus Christ was manifested, that the princes of the synagogue, who handed him over to death, acknowledged him to be God.'; these are the words of Isaac, a converted Jew, writing about 370, known to the Christians under the name of Gaudentius or Hilarius, as found in the Latin paraphrase of the Halosis or 'Capture of Jerusalem' [1] of Josephus, commonly attributed to one 'Egesippus.' [2] Nor does the opinion of Cardinal Baronius[3] sensibly differ from this view. In 1588 he writes: 'But certainly I believe that in so far as he confesses Christ, acknowledging him to be the son of God, he was compelled and constrained to do so solely by the power of God."

    Six years after the appearance of the first printed edition of Josephus' works (Basle, 1544), Sebastian Chateillon, the Protestant professor of theology at Basle, incorporated the Jewish War in his Latin edition of the Bible, unconsciously following the lead of the Eastern churches, the Syrian and Armenian, which had included Josephus' writings in the canon of the Scriptures, and of those Greek catenae in which the Jewish historian is quoted in the same breath with the Greek church fathers. Even in the seventeenth century there were still learned theologians who frankly pronounced Josephus to have been divinely inspired. As every reader of the Jewish War knows, Josephus himself was impudent enough to claim divine authority for his 'revelations,' not, of course, for the testimony to 'Jesus who was called the Messiah,' but for the shameless lie to which he owed the saving of his life and which was the basis of his whole ignoble existence as a client of the Flavian house, the brazen assertion, that is, that Vespasian was the world-ruler and world-redeemer foretold in Genesis 49:10. It is to the belief of the Church in the miraculous inspiration of this second Balaam that we owe the preservation not only of the Testimonium Flavianum but perhaps of the writings of Josephus as a whole.

    The miracle itself is all the more remarkable since it must have happened a considerable time after the death of this second Balaam. For whilst Eusebius (died c. 340) quotes this 'precious testimony' thrice [4], Origen (died c. 254), 'the greatest and most conscientious scholar of the ancient Church,; makes it quite clear, in two different passages [5], that in his text of the Antiquities Josephus did not represent Jesus as the Christ. From these passages Eduard Norden [6], among others, has inferred that, in his version of Josephus, Origen had found nothing whatever concerning Christ. But this hypothesis lacks a sound basis, for it is quite impossible that so scholarly and conscientious a writer as Origen appears to have been should have based his explicit statement on Josephus' rejection of the Christ as the Messiah on nothing more positive than the silence of the Romanized Jew concerning Jesus' life and work, or simply on Josephus' use of the somewhat ambiguous expression 'called the Christ,' a phrase which, besides, occurs also in the Gospel of Matthew (1:16), whom nobody, because of these words, has ever accused of disbelief in the Messianic dignity of Jesus.

    What the two passages of Origen do show is that whatever Origen read in his Josephus edition cannot have been the extant text of that famous passage with its orthodox Christian wording, but quite a different text, hostile to Jesus and the Christians and really in the Emperor Vespasian that the expectations of the Jews found their fulfillment. This amounts to saying that there is no proof of the existence of the famous testimony before the time when Christianity as a state religion was able to suppress all writings hostile to its founder or its teachings, a power officially conferred upon it by an edict of Constantine and re-enacted by the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian after the brief Pagan revival under Julian [7].

    Naturally, a party possessing the power to destroy obnoxious books will ipso facto be in a position to enforce minor omissions and alterations [8] in works in which only individual passages were felt to be objectionable. It is equally clear that owners of valuable manuscripts, whether private individuals, book-vendors, or officials in libraries and synagogues, should have preferred the excision of a few lines or certain alterations to the alternative of seeing their treasures devoured by the flames. Add to this the loss involved in the destruction of a whole Josephus in manuscript, and the laws imposing capital punishment on the concealed possession of writings hostile to Christianity [9], and the natural consequence will be obvious to every one. As a matter of fact, not a single Greek, Latin, Slavonic, or other Josephus text has come down to us which has not passed through the hands of Christian scribes and Christian owners. The numerous glosses and marginal notes, abounding in every single manuscript [10], fully bear out this statement.

First Doubts on the Authenticity of the 'Testimonium Flavianum'

    The genuineness of the 'precious jewel' has been admitted only in circles wholly dominated by the Church. The beautiful 'testimony' has somehow never made an impression on the Jews, although they, too, certainly knew it well. When mediaeval Christian scholars taunted them with the argument that the Jewish historian Josephus, whose works they possessed and held in high honour, had freely admitted that Jesus was the Messiah, they stubbornly replied (as we may gather from certain pages of Giraldus Cambrensis [11]) that this testimony was not found in their own Hebrew manuscript of the author. The Christians would then retort that the Jews had erased the passage from their manuscripts, and such manuscripts showing manifest erasures were indeed not wanting, and were repeatedly pointed out to the Jews to show that it was they who were in error.

    Of course, with these mutual accusations that the one party, the Christians, had interpolated the passage, and that the other, the Jews, had erased it, the argument could not advance very much. With the revival of learning the cultivated Jews were indeed not slow in putting up another and far more sweeping argument. The learned Isaac Abravanel [12] (1437-1508) in his commentary on Daniel drily and curtly observes: 'If Josephus wrote this, we accept it not from him, for he has written much, but not all is true.' Thus he doubts the genuineness of the Testimonium, but considers the whole matter of secondary importance in view of the well-known character of the writer, a commonsense view which can be warmly recommended to such blind believers among the Christians as may still think that anything can be gained for their cause by a statement made by so characterless an individual as was Flavius Josephus, who, Jew though he was, did not feel ashamed to proclaim Vespasian the Messiah of his people [13]. Were the passage as it stands genuine beyond the shadow of a doubt, one could only draw the conclusion that the clever sycophant had introduced it at a moment when it appeared to him that Christians such as Flavius Clemens and his wife Domitilla might after all gain some power at court -- enough, at all events, to be useful to him or to hinder his career [14]. That would take away from the passage all independent value which otherwise it might possess. For it stands to reason that Josephus would then have been wily enough to draw on the right sources, i.e. the oldest Gospel narratives [15]. Nor would the conversion of such a person as Josephus unquestionably was redound to the particular glory of any religion. At any rate, this much is clear: if the 'testimony' were proved to be authentic it could only be the work of a Christian, and it would matter very little, for our argument, whether that Christian were Josephus or Eusebius, and as a consequence if would have only the smallest value for the historicity of Jesus.

The Awakening of Criticism in the Age of Humanism

'…praeclarum ad Christiani dogmatis confirmationem testimonium…si non anxia hominum nimis curiosorum et otiosa sedulitas paene illud labefactasset.'

[a brilliant confirmatory witness to Christian doctrine…were it not that the overly painstaking and idle persistence of troubled people almost overthrows it]

                                                        P. D. Huet, Bishop of Avranches (1679)

    The first Christian scholar who boldly declared the Testimonium a forgery was the Protestant jurist and philologist Hubert van Giffen (Giphanius), a native of Buren in the duchy of Gelders. Born in 1534, he held a law degree from the University of Orleans, where he founded a library for the use of Teutonic students. Later he was professor at Strassburg, Altdorf, and Ingolstadt, embraced Catholicism, and died at the court of Rudolph II of Hapsburg, in Prague, in 1604. His view on the famous Josephus passage [16] does not seem to appear anywhere in his printed works. It is probable that for the sake of his own safety he was satisfied with expressing it only in his letters and lectures.

    The oldest printed attack on the Testimonium is from the pen of the Lutheran theologian Lucas Osiander, who was born at Nuremberg in 1535, and who in his later life filled quite a number of Protestant ecclesiastical posts. Though anything but a Judaeophile, he was accused in certain circles of having Jewish ancestors. He frankly regarded the Josephus passage as spurious in its entirety [17].

    Osiander was followed by Professor Sebastian Schnell (Snellius) of Altdorf. His arguments, as well as the replies which they called forth from contemporary scholars who came to the rescue of Josephus, have been preserved in manuscript letters which in those days circulated from hand to hand and played very much the same role as our modern scientific journals and were occasionally printed. They have been published by Christian Arnold [18]. It is natural enough that the critics of the passage were chiefly philologists, and its defenders theologians. In these discussions practically all of the possible arguments pro and con used by modern scholars are anticipated in one form or another.

    The first of the scholars who pointed out -- as Eduard Norden has but recently done again [19] -- that the Testimonium interrupts the logical structure of the narrative, and must therefore be regarded as an interpolation, was not the famous French Calvinist Tanneugy Lefevre, mentioned by Norden, but a certain Portugese rabbi, Rabbi Lusitanus, who drew upon himself the wrath of the Protestant divine Johannes Muller of Hamburg -- because the learned Sephardi [Rabbi] seems to have been on good terms with Benedict de Castro, the Jewish physician of Queen Christina of Sweden, and to have had through this compatriot a chance to present his views to her Majesty during her stay in Hamburg.

    The Rabbi Lusitanus is probably identical with the well-known Jewish physician and philosopher Abraham Zacuto Lusitano, born in Lisbon in 1575, a student of the Universities of Coimbra and Salamanca, a doctor of Siguenza, who for thirty-nine years lived as a pseudo-converted Jew (Marano) in Portugal, until he could escape to free Amsterdam in 1625. He died on New Year's Day of 1642, having returned, in Holland, to the faith of his fathers. The manuscript seen by Johannes Muller was the public disputation which he had in Middelburg with the Jesuit Nicolas Abram (1589-1655), a very learned theologian and philologist, author of a commentary on the Gospel of St. John, a Cicero commentary, and a Vergil edition. What should be stressed here is the Portuguese Jew's argument that the Testimonium interrupts the logical sequence of the text and must therefore be considered an interpolation. The same rabbi, according to Pastor Johannes Muller, states: '…Josephus telleth first / how Pilate hath given cause for rebellion / whereupon the text should continue to say / how about the same time still another tumult happened unto the Jews: but because in between them is told the history of Jesus / the text doeth not hang together / the other tumult pointeth to the first.'

Tanneguy Lefevre, Eduard Norden, and Others

    The French Huguenot Tanneguy Lefevre (Tanaquil Faber), who does not mention Zacuto Lusitano and can hardly have known his work, circulating in manuscript form only, argues in quite a similar strain: 'To speak in plain Latin, this interpolation could not have been more ineptly inserted anywhere else.' The matter calls for some elucidation. In the portion of the text containing inter alia the Testimonium there is a mention of 'two calamities' (thoruboi). Having finished with the first, Josephus adds these words: 'And so the riot (stasis) ceased.' The second, described in chapter 5, he connects with the first, saying: 'And about the same time another calamity disturbed the Jews,' etc. Eichstadt (1814) and Niese (1893-94), without knowing their predecessors of another age, have repeated verbatim this line of argument. Professor Norden quotes Lefevre with approval, adding that this argument should have sufficed to dispose of the whole question.

    We may then say that we are facing an argument which seems to have lost nothing of its force in the course of centuries, and to have taken with Norden's attractive and skilful presentation a new lease of life. A more detailed discussion is therefore unavoidable.

     At this point Eisler summarizes at length the 'interrupted narrative' criticism. (The argument is still a feature of modern discussions of the Testimonium such as John Meier's in A Marginal Jew.)
    Eisler then responds is as follows:
    It is difficult, at a first perusal, to deny the force of these remarks. Yet on second thought they carry far less weight than one might at first be inclined to suppose. It is perfectly true, of course, that the section in its extant form does not fit into the enumerations of 'tumults.' But in a narrative observing a purely chronological order of sequence and written in the ordinary style of annalists it should be possible to insert here and there some miscellaneous notes among the 'disturbances' which form the nucleus of the story. Whether, as Prof. Norden believes, Josephus is here dependent upon an annalist such as Cluvius Rufus, or, as I hope to show later on, whether he had access to the official notes of the imperial chancellery (commentarii), his source no doubt, and very naturally, contained all sorts of facts out of which he chose what appeared to him most important or most appropriate. Bearing this in mind, we must admit the possibility of some minor affair or even a mere anecdote having slipped in with the mass of more serious political events. Professor Leo Wohleb [20], for example, has adduced quite a number of instances in the text of Josephus where obviously foreign matter has been inserted, more or less awkwardly, by the compiler, whose artistic preconceptions were evidently not of the highest order, and who is, moreover, at times fully conscious of adding details which are not essential to the story he is telling [21].
    The absence of the term such as 'tumult' Eisler more strongly attributes to its deletion by a Christian censor. The speculation is that originally the Testimonium did describe a 'tumult', and it was hostile to Jesus; therefore it was censored. The rest of the chapter and of much of Eisler's book is devoted to the idea that a quantity of Josephus' original text is missing from extant manuscripts.

    Eisler proposes a reconstruction of the Testimonium that follows not unnaturally from the hypothesis that some text was deleted by Christian censors. There were many such deletions made in Jewish works, Eisler notes. Given that something was erased, it must be that the deleted text was hostile to Christianity (else no one would have bothered to censor it). Therefore, Josephus' original description of Jesus must have been antagonistic. Eisler then proposes a certain small amount of hostile text that could have been deleted from the original to leave the existing version.

    Eisler's proposal for the original form of the Testimonium is as follows. (The dots […] are Eisler's and indicate what Eisler he believes are irrecoverable deletions.)
"Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man who was the most monstrous of all men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man hath ever yet done…He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight….

And he seduced many also of the Greek nation and was regarded by them as the Messiah…

And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold -- these and ten thousand other wonderful things -- concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called "Messianists" after him is not extinct."


Eisler's method suffers, as he admits, from the innate impossibility of guessing at phrases of which no trace remains, and which may have not existed at all.

Another problem is Eisler's starting hypothesis: that a portion of the text was deleted and altered because it was hostile to Jesus. But there is another possibility: that the original text was originally neutral  concerning Jesus, and portions of it were deleted and altered to make it favorable toward Jesus, as we see it today.

The advantage of Eisler's "hostility hypothesis" is that it offers a motivation for altering the text and explains Origen's statement. But a neutral or somewhat skeptical text can do the same. The latter is an intrinsically more likely hypothesis for two reasons. First, generating a favorable text from a neutral one is a smaller step than working from a starting text that was hostile, and in the latter case, the simple deletions Eisler takes as his model would have turned a neutral text into a hostile one, not a favorable one. Second, an originally neutral text is more in keeping with Josephus' presentation of himself in the Antiquities as an objective historian.

Eisler's reconstruction is biased by his oft-repeated opinions of Josephus as an immoral, self-serving traitor. I believe any objective comparison of Josephus' writing in the Antiquities with Eisler's reconstruction reveals the innate implausibility of the latter's extremely hostile tone.

1 See Eisler's p. 119 n.1

2 ii. 12, ed. Ussani, p. 164 (Corp. Script. Eccl Lat., vol lxvi)

3 Ann. eccl., i (Rome, 1588) an aun. xxxiv

4 See Eisler's p. 59 ll. 13 f.

5 See Eisler's App. XII

6 N. Jahrb. f. d. kalss. Altert., xxxi (1913) p. 649, Sec. 9

7 See Eisler's App. IV

8 See Eisler's Plates VII and XIV

9 See Eisler's App. IV

10 See Eisler's App. XIII

11 Geraldi Cambrensis opera, vol. viii, ed. George F. Warner, London, 1891 (Rev. Brit. med. aevi scriptores), p. 64 f.

12 Fonte x. palma vii of the Pesaro edition of 1512 of his commentaries to the later prophets.

13 Cf. Saint Alfonso Lignori, De Fidei Veritate, ii. 11 (Opp. Dogm., i., Rome, 1903, p. 195

14 A similar view has indeed been advanced recently by Prof. Laqueur of Giessen.

15 'Mark' is at all events prior to 'Matthew', who is about contemporary with Josephus' Antiquities.

16 Sebast. Lepusculus ap. Goldast, Centum epist. Philol., Frankfurt-a.-M., 1619, p. 350

17 Epitomes eccl. cent., xvi cent., i., lib ii. c. 7 (Tubingen, 1592)

18 Epistulae hist. et philol. de Flavi Josephi testimonio, etc., Nurnberg, 1661

19 N. Jahrb. f.d. klass. Altert., xxxi. (1913), pp. 648 ff.

20 Rom. Quartalschrift, xxxv., 1917, p. 157 f., about Ant. 13.5.9

21 Cp. Ant. 12.2.2 59 on certain parerga 'the story not absolutely requiring their retelling; similarly, Ant. 17 354, 'I have not considered this as matter unconnected with the subject.'

    Flavius Josephus Home Page