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Josephus: International Man of History

If you’ve spent time reading books about the New Testament and the birth of Christianity, you’ve likely run across references to Josephus. Often, scholars mention him without explaining who he was, though occasionally he’ll be referred to as “the Jewish historian Josephus.”

Who was he, what did he write, and why does he get mentioned so often?

Who Josephus was

Josephus was born in Judaea in A.D. 37—just a few years after Jesus was crucified. He grew to manhood in the period covered by the book of Acts.

His birth name was Joseph ben Mattathias. He was a priest and a member of the Hasmonean family that had come to power in Judaea under the Maccabees, though the country was under Roman rule (Life 1).

In A.D. 64, when Josephus was 27, he went to Rome, where he successfully plead before Nero for the release of some Jewish priests (Life 3).

When the Jewish war broke out in A.D. 66, he was made a military commander in Galilee. His command did not last long, and in mid 67, the Romans captured him. At the time, he was hiding in a cave with forty men who were determined to die rather than surrender.

Josephus convinced them to draw lots instead of committing suicide. The one to whom the lot first fell would be killed by the second, the second by the third, and so on. That way, nobody except the last man would have to commit suicide, and they would all die together, with only the risk that the last man would chicken out.

Eventually, it was down to Josephus and one other man, and the two decided they would chicken out (War 3:8:7).

The Roman general Vespasian took Josephus into custody. However, he quickly prophesied that Vespasian and his son and colleague, Titus, would become Roman emperors.

In A.D. 68, the Roman senate declared Nero an enemy of the state, and he was forced to commit suicide, leading to a yearlong series of civil wars in which four different men served as emperor, ending with Vespasian, who departed Judaea for Rome in 69, leaving Titus in charge of military operations.

Josephus was freed from captivity (War 4:10:7), and he stayed with the Romans, serving as a negotiator on their behalf to try to get the Jews in Jerusalem to surrender in order to avoid the bloodshed that eventually resulted. Josephus was an eyewitness of the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple in A.D. 70 (War 6:5:1-2).

After the war, Josephus relocated to Rome, where he was granted citizenship and a pension. He took the Roman name Flavius Josephus, out of deference to his patrons, Vespasian and Titus, who belonged to the Flavian family. All of his books were written during this period. He died around A.D. 100.

The value of Josephus’s works

Josephus’s writings are valued by scholars because they provide a great deal of information that we otherwise would not have. Not only is Josephus’s account of the Jewish war by far the most detailed account in existence, he also provides information not preserved in other sources about the centuries leading up to his own time.

He even records information that has been valuable for scholars in other fields. For example, in Against Apion, he quotes from the Egyptian historian Manetho, whose history is lost—making Josephus a valuable source for Egyptologists. Today, Jewish scholars also study his works, and his works have always been recognized as important for studying the origins of Christianity.

Josephus sheds light on many things mentioned in the New Testament, such as how the Romans came to be in control of Judaea in the time of Christ, what happened during the reign of Herod the Great, and what the various Roman governors did.

He provides information about the Pharisees and Sadducees, who are mentioned in the New Testament, as well as the Essenes, who many think wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and how the Zealot party emerged and began championing the rebellion that eventually broke out.

Josephus also mentions a number of figures in the New Testament, including John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ “brother,” James the Just—as well as providing an eyewitness account of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple.

Before we look at some of the things he had to say, we need to ask a question . . .

How accurate is Josephus?

It is easy to overestimate and underestimate Josephus’s accuracy.

In the main, he faithfully preserves the information he has, whether he obtained it from written sources (such as the books of the Old Testament), from oral sources (such as reports he heard of events in the Jewish war where he was not present), or from his own eyewitness.

On the other hand, he is not above slanting material in his own favor. He portrays himself in an implausibly positive light, and one suspects that he is not always being honest about his motives and actions.

For example, he says, “When I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had of learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law” (Life 2).

This was before Josephus conducted his famous survey of the different schools of Judaism. He next says: “When I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trial of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all.”

He says by the time he was nineteen he ended up choosing the Pharisees.

One senses a good bit of exaggeration here. Since Josephus came from a priestly family, he may have been asked his opinion on points of law to check how well his studies were going, but it was hardly likely that the high priests were seeking to form their own opinions based on what fourteen-year-old Josephus said.

Similarly, Josephus may have conducted a survey of the views of different Jewish sects, with all the bravado and self-confidence of a teenager, but we needn’t suppose that he acquired a great deal of insight during this survey. Indeed, he also wrote that he was living in the desert with a hermit during this time!

In War he talks about his own opposition to the revolt against the Romans, and yet he ended up as a general in command of forces in Galilee. Then, when he is captured, he quickly tells Vespasian that God has sent him to reveal that he and Titus will become emperors (War 3:8:9).

It is not implausible that Josephus made such a prediction upon being taken captive. The political situation in Rome was becoming unstable. Nero was about to be deposed by the Senate, and one of his more popular generals was likely to succeed him.

Rather than really believing he was the recipient of divine revelation, though, Josephus likely made his prediction as a desperate gambit, based on his knowledge of the Roman political situation, hoping to keep his captors from killing or maltreating him.

We thus have to be careful in handling material from Josephus when he is describing his own motives. The truth likely lies somewhere between what Josephus said and what his critics alleged about him. Unfortunately, their writings are lost and we can only reconstruct their criticisms based on what Josephus says in reply.

An example of how Josephus is both reliable and unreliable as a historian is the way he dates various events. At the time, different calendars were in use in the Empire.

For example, Passover fell on the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan, and Josephus converts this date for his Greek readers by saying that it fell on the fourteenth of the Macedonian month of Xanthikos (War 5:3:1).

The thing is, in this period the Macedonian calendar used solar months, while the Jewish calendar used lunar months that began with the sighting of the new moon. As a result, Xanthikos only approximated Nisan.

Josephus took the Jewish date and listed the month as the Macedonian month that largely approximated the Jewish one (see Sacha Stern, Calendar and Community 1.2.4).

This reveals that Josephus is trying to communicate a truth to his readers, but he’s not being precise about how he expresses that truth. The Jewish holiday Passover was celebrated on the fourteenth of a month that approximates Xanthikos, but to say it took place on Xanthikos 14 is misleading.

We thus can be confident generally of Josephus’s truthful intent; but we have to be careful, too, because he doesn’t bend over backward in the service of accuracy and precision.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the details of what Josephus says. For example, he gave dimensions for Herod’s temple that many scholars thought were utter exaggeration, but archaeological work has confirmed them (see Carol Meyers, “Temple, Jerusalem,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary).

We thus should not be either overly skeptical nor overly credulous with what Josephus reports.

What he says about Jesus

In Antiquities, in addition to various Roman and Jewish officials, Josephus mentions three figures who are particularly important in the history of Christianity. The first of these is Jesus.

Antiquities contains a passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum (“the Testimony of Flavius [Josephus]”). In discussing the tenure of Pontius Pilate, the text says:

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 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 (Antiquities 18:3:3).

This passage is controversial because of how positively it portrays Jesus. Most scholars believe a Christian copyist edited it and included select phrases (e.g., “if it be lawful to call him a man,” “he was Christ,” etc.) that were not in the original.

Scholars have proposed reconstructions of the original passage by eliminating phrases not likely to have been used by a non-Christian Jew like Josephus, and there is partial confirmation of these reconstructions in parallel translations that have been discovered in Arabic and Syriac.

For example, the Arabic version of the Testimonium, translated by the Jewish scholar Shlomo Pines, reads:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and his learning outstanding. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after the crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

Regardless of how the text originally read, it appears that Josephus did discuss Jesus at this point, and it is not the only occasion on which he does so, as we will see below.

What he says about John the Baptist

Josephus reports that some Jews thought Herod the Tetrarch’s army was defeated because of what the ruler did to John the Baptist (see Matt. 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:7-9). Josephus writes:

Some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

Now, when others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death (Antiquities 18:5:2).

This report is noteworthy because it is independent of the accounts of John in the Gospels. Josephus presents Herod as acting against John simply because he perceived him to be a threat.

That is implicit in the Gospels, which paint a more complex portrait of the situation. Mark mentions that Herod had respect for John as a prophet, and Matthew and Mark mention the role of his wife, Herodias, and her daughter in bringing about John’s execution.

On the other hand, Josephus preserves a detail not found in the Gospels, which is that it was the Macherus fortress at which John was imprisoned.

What he says about James the Just

The third New Testament figure Josephus mentions is James, who is described as one of the “brothers” of Jesus (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3, Gal. 1:19).

At this time, the Jewish authorities were not allowed to impose capital punishment, which is why they went to the Roman governor, Pilate, asking for Jesus to be executed (John 18:31).

When one of Pilate’s successors—Festus—died in office in the A.D. 60s, a power vacuum existed until the next governor, Albinus, could arrive. The high priest Ananus bar Ananus took the opportunity to put James to death.

Josephus records:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned (Antiquities 20:9:1).

This action led to Ananus being stripped of the high priesthood after only three months in office.

Of note for our purposes is the way Josephus introduces the victim as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” This suggests that Jesus was better known than James, which is not surprising, since his followers were calling him the Christ. It also provides support for an earlier mention of Jesus, of whom the original readers would already have been told.

Either way, Josephus provides independent, first-century references to Jesus, John the Baptist, and James the Just. These are among the many reasons his writings are valuable for scholars in multiple fields.

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