Thursday, March 07, 2013

Did Josephus Call Jesus the Messiah?

There is a famous passage in the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, which speaks of Jesus of Nazareth — the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Antiq. 18:63 [18.3.3]). In general, scholars now think that at least some of this passage (available here with background) is authentic, although it contains Christian interpolations.

One of the agreed-upon interpolations is the sentence ho Christos houtos en, translated as "he was the Christ" or "he was the Messiah." It is felt, and rightly, that this sentence, so understood, would have been impossible coming from the pen of a Jewish writer, and therefore it must be a later interpolation. However, I want to suggest that Josephus did not construe the adjective christos as the title "Christ/Messiah," but as the proper name "Christos."

In general, outside Christian circles, the title "Christ" was understood as a proper name. The reference in Tacitus's Annals refers to Christians as having their name from "Christus." Suetonius likewise may have referred to the founder of Christianity as "Chrestus." In the Book of Acts, the Gentile residents of Antioch call the followers of Jesus "Christianoi," i.e., followers of Christos (Acts 11:26). The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon of New Testament Greek suggests that the construal of the title as a name began among Gentiles because they would not have understood its Jewish background, and took it for the proper name Chrestos (which would have sounded like Christos in spoken Greek).

Josephus only uses the adjective christos in three places: in the Testimonium, at Antiquities 20:200, which deals with James the brother of Jesus "who is called Christos" (Iesou to legomenou Christou); and in Antiquities 8:137, where he refers to a building being "plastered" (christon). He never uses it to refer to the office of the Messiah, or any religious office or rite connected with it. (Philo does not use the adjective at all.) However, if the citation at 20.200 is accepted as legitimate, with most scholars, it seems likely that the word was previously mentioned.

Hence it seems possible to me that we should construe the sentence in Antiq. 18:63 as "this was Christos" — identifying for Josephus's Gentile audience the figure under discussion as the Jewish teacher who might have been known to them as Christos or Chrestos. If so, then this sentence is part of the original text and not a later interpolation.


Anonymous said...

It might be worth nothing that "Chrestus" in Latin would be a transliteration of Gk. chrēstos meaning "good, useful" -- as in the US southern expression "he's the good sort" or "of good stock", or even "You're a good man, Charlie Brown". Certainly Tacitus and Suetonius would have understood this connection -- so, I doubt the Latin authors, at least, would have thought of it as a foreign proper name. But you're right that Josephus, catering to that audience, doesn't seem to care to demonstrate the root is from chriō "to anoint" to rather than chraomai "to make use of". In other words, if this is legitimately by Josephus, he may even be intentionally obfuscating the question of "anointed" or "Messiah" by allowing the possibility that this name would be (naturally) misunderstood by Romans who knew some Greek to mean essentially "the good".

Further to the point, the orthographical difference between "Christus" and "Chrestus" is interesting, given that these historians are virtually contemporary with one another. Barring some MSS error that I don't know about, could "Chrestus" in Suetonius signal a recognition of the phonological shift in Greek iotacism? Putting right what he might have thought was a transliteration error? I ask since, as you note, both "Chrēstos" and "Christos" would have been pronounced as "Chreestos" by this time. Perhaps the difference in orthography is merely accidental. Either way, I would argue both Latin authors are probably thinking "Chrēstos" as a natural Greek epithet, rather than "Christos" as a proper name.


Paul D. said...

I believe the actual extant manuscript of Tacitus reads "Chrestus" as well. And our oldest manuscripts of Acts (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus) read "Chrestians" as well.

Drastic Plastic said...

Your post is a good one, and I have long thought something similar. There is no reason why, in a book written in Rome for Romans, Josephus should suddenly interject a Jewish religious idea. It's far more likely, as you say, that he was identifying the person, the founder of the Christians, referenced in much the same way by Tacitus.

The only difficulty I can see with this is the James passage, "brother of the so-called Christ". This, surely, must involve a messianic idea? Unless we treat it as "brother of the one called Christ"?

Drastic Plastic said...

The comments about "Chrestus" seem rather odd to me. Tertullian tells us in the Apologeticum that people were unsure whether to say "Christians" or "Chrestians", when demanding that these awful people be thrown to the lions. The uncertainty about a vowel and the lack of a standard orthography for an unfamiliar name will be familiar to everyone who reads Latin manuscripts, or studies Latin inscriptions (vide the variants in the name "Mithras" in the latter).