Origen and Josephus, Part 5
Can Origen tell us anything about the famous reference to Christ in Ant. 18.3.3 §63-64, the Testimonium Flavianum? I think so, though what follows is surely indirect evidence. First, the passage in question:
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.
Origen says that Josephus did not believe “in Jesus as the Messiah,” which sounds as if Josephus has said enough to rule out the possibility. Origen says that Josephus admitted the link between the war and the righteousness of James “against his will,” which again suggests that Josephus has made clear that his will was non-Christian. Often it’s argued that Origen knew this about Josephus simply by reading the phrase, “Jesus who was called Christ.” But there is nothing derogatory about the phrase; and if Matthew, Justin and Origen himself could be Christians and refer to Jesus as one who is called Christ, then so could Josephus. The later traditions about Josephus’s admiration for James could surely have been taken to the next step, wherein Josephus was regarded as having a similar or better attitude toward one who was greater than James. Origen wants to take that next step, but why did not he or his predecessors do so? Perhaps it was simply common knowledge that Josephus was a Jewish historian who had never converted. But that did not ultimately prevent traditions about Josephus to proceed onward to his conversion.
Origen insists that Josephus “ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet.” He seems to presuppose that Josephus knew about the death. Now this could merely indicate Origen’s confidence that Josephus, at least as a Jewish historian, and particularly as one who knows of a Jesus “called Christ,” must have known about his execution. That is perfectly possible, but again we return to the probability that Origen did not have the full texts of Josephus on hand. From where, then, would he attain his confidence that Josephus could have written that Jesus was executed by the Jewish people, just as James was? If Origen observed that Josephus had merely named Christ in connection to James, why does Origen seem confident that Josephus knew more?
I suggest that Origen did witness Josephus mentioning the execution of Christ in an original form of the Testimonium, one that reached him second-hand. The Testimonium would have provided Origen with Josephus’ only thoughts on Christ – thoughts which made it clear that Josephus was not a Christian but which suggested to Origen that Josephus could be criticized for not even calling Christ a “prophet” or attributing the war to the “conspiracy” against him. The Testimonium’s phrase “wise man” might well have prompted Origen’s desire to see the acclamation of “prophet”; and the phrase, “at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us”, could evoke the Gospel imagery of a conspiracy.
In any case, whatever form of the Testimonium that Origen knew could not yet contain Christian-sounding phrases, because those would not have allowed Origen any certainty that Josephus did not accept Christ. Such phrases must have been inserted in copies unknown to Origen or postdating him, and these became the seeds of still later traditions about Josephus becoming a Christian. Probably Origen did find the phrase “called Christ” or its equivalent, given the statement that the tribe of Christians is named after the man. (Later, traditions about Josephus developed to the point that he became a Christian, as attested in the Testimonium’s phrase, “He was the Christ.”) Whatever he did find did not affirm Christ even as a prophet, so Origen chose not to quote it in his refutation of Celsus.
To be sure, this is all indirect evidence. When an author cites another, we have direct evidence of what the other says. When an author speaks about what another has not said, we have only indirect evidence that something deemed to be insufficient was said; it may be that nothing was said.
Due to all the arguments here offered, however, I am confident that such was not the case with Josephus and Jesus.