Robert Eisler (1882-1949)

Robert Eisler, born in Vienna, was a Jewish scholar of ancient history, cosmology, myth, and economics. Trained at Vienna and Rome, Eisler served as head of the League of Nations’ Committee of Intellectual Cooperation in Paris between 1925-1931, and taught at the Sorbonne in 1927-1928. Having survived detention at the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, Eisler escaped Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II and went to Britain, where he spent the remainder of his life. In his magnum opus The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, Eisler argued that an old-Russian, or Slavonic, version of the Jewish War was in fact translated from an uncorrupted version of Josephus’s Greek version, and hence it is more authentic than the extant Greek text. Based on textual comparisons between the Slavonic and Greek versions of the Jewish War, Eisler reconstructed Josephan descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist that, he submitted, were an invaluable historical source on early Christianity. Eisler also claimed that the famous reference to Jesus in Antiquities 18.3, the Testimonium Flavianum, had a Hebrew version found in manuscripts of the Hebrew Sefer Yosippon (Book of Yosippon), and hence was an authentic Jewish text rather than a later Christian insertion. According to Gershom Scholem, ‘For all unsolved problems [Eisler] had in readiness brilliantly false solutions of the most surprising kind’, practicing, ‘scholarly adventurism, with enterprises that at various times were as sensational as they were unsuccessful’. And indeed, Eisler’s theories attracted considerable scholarly attention in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Yet, they were heavily contested and remain an intriguing curiosity today.

Eisler, Robert. Iesous basileus ou basileusas. Die messianische Unabhängigkeitsbewegung vom Auftreten Johannes des Täufers bis zum Untergang Jakobs des Gerechten. Nach der neuerschlossenen Eroberung von Jerusalem des Flavius Josephus und den christlichen Quellen dargestellt. 2 volumes. Heidelberg, 1929-1930.
Eisler, Robert. The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist According to Flavius Josephus’ Recently Rediscovered ‘Capture of Jerusalem’ and the Other Jewish and Christian Sources. Translated by Alexander Haggerty Krappe. London, 1931. (excerpt available at
Eisler, Robert. ‘Flavius Josephus on Jesus Called the Christ.’ Jewish Quarterly Review 21.1/2 (1930): 1-60.

Leeming, H., and K. Leeming, eds. Josephus’ Jewish War and its Slavonic Version: A Synoptic Comparison. Translated by H. Leeming and L. Osinkina. Leiden, 2003.
Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin. The Story of a Friendship. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York, 1981. Pp. 131-32.
Whealey, Alison Anne. Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times. New York, 2003.

JRA entry contributed by Orr Scharf