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Josephus’ Writings and Their Relation to the New Testament

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I. Josephus’ Contribution to New Testament Backgrounds

A. General Areas of Contribution

Josephus was born in Jerusalem in A.D. 37/38 and became a historian writing principally about the Jewish people up until his death ca. 100. Four of his works are extant: 1) The Jewish War; 2) The Jewish Antiquities; 3) Vita (life) and 4) Against Apion. These works provide us with knowledge of the New Testament era which we otherwise would not possess. In short, Josephus has contributed to our understanding of the social, political, historical (incl. chronological data) and religious backgrounds of the New Testament.

B. Specific Examples1

    1. The Hasmoneans

Josephus talks about the Hasmonean line, including such people as Judas ben Mattathias (Ant. 12. 6. 1-4); Judas the Maccabee (Ant. 12. 7-11); John Hyrcanus I (Ant. 13. 8-12); Aristobulus I (Ant. 13. 10. 1-3); Alexander Jannaeus (War 1.4, 5; Ant. 13. 12-16); Alexandra Salome (Ant. 13. 14. 1, 5, 6); Hyrcanus II (Ant. 14. 1-4, 8; Aristobulus II (Ant. 13. 16-14. 1, 3, 6, 7) and of course Mariamne I (War 1. 12, 22); Herod the Great and several others.

These people, through Josephus’ recounting of their lives, play a significant role in helping us to understand how the high priesthood was viewed in the years leading up to the coming of Christ, and their relation to the emerging religious sects in Israel, i.e. the Pharisees, the Sadducees, etc. further enlightens us as to the political, spiritual climate in Israel at that time.

    2. Herod the Great and His Family

Josephus has a great deal to say about the antecedents of Herod the Great as well as he and his family after him. A few items have been selected for discussion.

a. Herod was a competent person, able to hunt, ride a horse, shoot an arrow, win in combat, etc. (War 1. 21. 13.). From descriptions like this we can understand how he was able to escape capture by the Parthians, and later lead Roman troops back to Judea, defeat the Parthians and gain control of the land. It is quite reasonable to understand then how he was King of the Jews as the Gospel writers affirm (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:5). It is also interesting to note that, according to Josephus, Herod was installed as King of Judea by the decree of Caesar Augustus (War 1. 20).

b. The linking of Herod with the reign of Caesar helps us also in dating the New Testament events described by the Gospel writers. For example, generally speaking Herod died after 33 years of service to Rome in 4 B. C. and Christ was born right around the same time, a little before perhaps—4 or 5 B. C. (cf. Matt 2:1 and 2:16). Many other dates are secured by Josephus with respect to the Roman governors.

c. He was a tireless builder as Josephus makes evident (War 1. 21) and was indeed responsible for rebuilding the Jewish Temple at no small personal expense (War 1. 21. 1). Since it was done in the fifteenth year of his reign (i.e. ca. 18 B. C.) we know the age of the Temple spoken of in Gospel accounts (i.e. approx. 48-50 years).

d. Determined to increase his power and sphere of rule, he had Hyrcanus killed and thus removed any threat to the throne (War 1. 22. 1 (433)).

e. Herod was increasingly more tyrannical near the end of his career (Ant. 16. 11. 8; War 33). This may provide the background to the slaying of the children recorded in Matthew 2:16. Herod was certainly, according to Josephus, not only capable of such a horrible crime, but was indeed disposed toward such evil acts. Note: It appears that this terrible event is not recorded in Josephus.

f. It appears from Josephus that Archelaus, Herod’s son who assumed leadership as Ethnarch over Judea, Samaria and Idumea in 4 B. C. (after Herod’s death) was of similar character to his father. Josephus says that “Archelaus took possession of the ethnarchy, and used not the Jews only, but the Samaritans, also, barbarously” (War 2. 7.3) with the result that the Jews complained before Caesar and Archelaus was banished to Vienna, a city of Gaul (Ant. 17. 13 This portrait of Archelaus could account for why Joseph and Mary, upon their return from Egypt and hearing that Archelaus was reigning in place of his father, went strait to Nazareth in Galilee—outside the realm of Archelaus and the fear of danger (cf. Matt 2:22).

    3. Roman Emperors

Josephus records facts about the Roman emperors which enable us to know more about them, their political lives and their relation to the Jewish nation through their appointed leaders. In this way, for example, when Luke mentions Caesar Augustus (2:1) or Tiberius Caesar (3:1) we know something of their character in general and perhaps can better understand how they might have influenced events going on in the N.T.

a. Caesar Augustus: Josephus speaks of Caesar Augustus on many occasions including his connections with Herod the Great and their relationship. Josephus explains how Herod’s dominions were parceled out to his sons (War 2. 6. 3). This, in turn, accounts for the political state of affairs found in the Gospels after the death of Herod (see I. B. 2. e. above).

b. Tiberius: Tiberius Caesar was the emperor who placed Pontius Pilate as procurator over Judea (War 2. 9. 2). Pilate tried to erect “Ensigns” to Caesar in Jerusalem (War 2. 9. 2 (169)) and also spent money from the Temple treasury on construction of aqueducts (War 2. 9. 4). It is interesting to note that the Jews were indignant and greatly angered at this, yet when it came to crucifying one of their own, namely, Jesus Christ, they had no king but one—Caesar, and by implication his representative, Pilate (cf. John 19:15). If Christ died as late as A. D. 33 and Pilate’s impieties occurred around the beginning of his reign (A. D. 26) there would be no more than ten years between the events and perhaps even much less time. It appears that the Jewish people had very convenient memories.

c. Gaius (Caius/Caligula): Caius ruled as emperor from A. D. 37-41 during the fledgling years of the church—a church which was still basically comprised of Jews. During his reign he sent Petronius to invade Judea and erect a statue of Caesar in the Temple. If the Jews were unwilling, Petronius was to conquer them by war and then do erect the statue (Ant. 18. 2, ff.). The Jews said they would rather die than allow Caesar opportunity to place a statue of himself in their Temple. Their response is most noble and clearly demonstrates that they were still clinging to the Temple and their traditions in spite of the coming of Christ and the abrogation of the Law. One wonders how the Christians in Jerusalem, many of whom appear to have remained connected to the Temple for some time (cf. Acts 3 and Peter and John going to the Temple to pray) would have responded to this in the light of having many unsaved family members. Would they have given their lives for the Temple? Were they viewed as traitors if they decided not to help due to their new theological convictions? In any event, this incident illumines our understanding of the conditions and problems facing the Jews and the church in its early days. On a theological note, perhaps God wanted to use the situation to further separate the church from unbelieving Judaism. The destruction of the Temple by Titus some 30 years later seems to indicate that He had set the nation aside for a time and had begun to work through the church (cf. Romans 9-11; written around A.D. 57/58).

d. Claudius: Claudius reigned from A. D. 41-54 and is mentioned twice in the book of Acts. Luke records the prophet Agabus’ prediction that a famine was to come upon the land during the reign of Claudius (11:28). He also says that an edict was passed by Claudius expelling all the Jews from Rome (18:2). This occurred in A. D. 49-50 due to riots arising within the Jewish community over a certain Chrestus which may refer to Christ or to some other person.2 Josephus discusses Claudius and his relations with the Jews. He mentions a favorable pronouncement upon the Jews during a crisis involving them and the Greeks in the city of Alexandria (Ant. 19. 5. 2, 3). This edict, due to the fact that Herod Agrippa I was still living and king of Palestine, was sometime between A. D. 41-44, thus some 5 or 6 years before the expulsion. Again, we learn valuable information about the kind of world in which the early church grew and developed.

e. Nero: Nero reigned from A. D. 54-68, the time in which Paul was carrying out his missionary journeys and the church was really starting to grow and take on a distinctively Gentile flavor. According to Josephus, Nero was a barbarous individual (Ant. 20. 8. 3) who we know from other historians persecuted the church in Rome most severely (i.e. after the great fire) and was responsible for the death of the apostles Peter and Paul.3 Josephus’ report adds yet another witness to this time period in which Nero reigned over the empire and made an impact upon the church and N. T. writings (cf. Romans 13; 1 Peter 2; the background to Hebrews).

f. Vespasian/Titus: Josephus goes into great deal about the events leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 and the role played by Vespasian and Titus in the war (War 3-7).

    4. Roman Prefects and Procurators

a. Pontius Pilate: Josephus describes many of the Roman prefects and procurators including Pontius Pilate, Antoninus Felix and Porcius Festus. Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect who ruled Judea and Samaria from A. D. 26-36. Josephus describes how he slaughtered many Jews (Ant. 18. 3. 1, 2) and indeed passed sentence on Christ (Ant. 18. 3. 3).

b. Antoninus Felix: Felix was a Roman procurator who ruled over Judea and Samaria from A. D. 53-60. According to Josephus, Felix was so overwhelmed with passion for Drusilla, the wife of Azizus, that he went so far as to send a magician to her in order to convince her to marry him. So, Drusilla divorced her husband and married Felix, thus “transgressing the laws of her forefathers” (Ant. 20. 7. 2). Luke tells us that Paul discussed such things as righteousness and self-control with Felix (and his wife together) which caused him much fear (Acts 24:25). No doubt that Felix was afraid due to his wife and the many other vile crimes he committed against the Jews. In this case it is probable that Josephus gives us pertinent background information that enlightens our understanding of this particular N. T. text.

c. Porcius Festus: Josephus also mentions Fetus’ rule (A. D. 60-62;Ant. 20. 8. 9) after Felix. The fact that Festus replaced Felix, according to Josephus, seems to be in agreement with Luke in Acts 24:27.

    5. Several Other Areas of Contribution

Josephus also provides insight and background to several other figures or institutions as seen in the New Testament. He speaks about the Jewish religious sects of the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes (War 2. 8. 2 ff.) as well as the institution of the Sanhedrin (Ant. 14. 9. 3). Josephus also fills in details about the tetrarchy of Philip (War 2. 6. 3; cf. Luke 3:1) and the institution of the High Priest (Ant. 5. 11. 5, etc.). He speaks about Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus.

II. Two Parallel Incidents from Josephus and the New Testament

A. John the Baptist (Ant. 18. 5. 2; Matt 3:1-12; Mark 1:3-8; Luke 3:2-17; John 1:6-8 and 19-28.

    1. Main Points in Agreement

a. Josephus, and Matthew and Mark, refer to John as the Baptist.

b. Josephus says that John commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, that is, righteousness toward one another and piety toward God. Matthew says that John taught those baptized to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. Luke says the same thing basically and carries it a bit further by offering examples of what repentance might look like (i.e. sharing tunics; collecting the proper amount of taxes; soldiers using force properly and not for dishonest gain; no bearing false testimony against another).

c. Many crowds, according to Josephus, came to listen to his words. Matthew, Mark, Luke say that great multitudes followed John and were baptized by him. John says the Jews sent priests and Levites to question him.

d. Josephus seems to indicate that John’s followers were very dedicated to him (118). John’s followers, according to the Gospels, and Acts 19 were very dedicated to him and his message.

e. According to Josephus, Herod had John sent to prison in Macherus [on the east side of the Dead Sea] and there had him put to death. The Gospel writers affirm that John was put in prison by Herod, though they do not indicate where.

    2. Main Points in Disagreement

a. Josephus says that some Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army was due to his killing of John—a judgment of God. The Gospel writers record no such interpretation of Herod’s defeat. There is no record in any of the four Gospels that God had Herod’s armies destroyed as a result of him killing John unjustly.

b. Josephus does not give the area of John’s ministry, but the Gospel writers taken together indicate that John ministered outside of Antipas’ territory, in Jerusalem, Judea and neighboring areas (e. g. areas around the Jordan).

c. In Josephus, Herod Antipas feared John because he thought that with the people following him John might lead a rebellion. Herod wanted to put him to death on the grounds of suspicion and nothing more. The Gospel writers say that Herod wanted to kill John because John preached against his unlawful marriage with Herodias. In the end, it was the whim of Herodias, conspiring with her daughter, which led to John’s death (Matt 14:3ff; Mark 6:17ff; Luke 3:19, 20).

d. Josephus says that John’s baptism was not for the remission of sins, but was for the purification of the body due to the fact that the soul was already purified by the people’s return to righteousness prior to coming for John’s baptism. The Gospel writers appear to unanimously indicate that John’s baptism of repentance was for the remission of sins and Matthew and Mark state that people were confessing their sins to John, meaning they had no previous righteousness per se, at least as Josephus seems to indicate.

e. Josephus does not connect John with Jesus Christ. All the Gospel writers make the connection in no uncertain terms.

    3. Conclusion

The main areas of agreement are substantial enough to provide the basis for an attempt to harmonize the areas of disagreement. Points (a) and (b) under areas of disagreement do not concern the essential story and as such really do not pose a problem. Point (c) above is really no contradiction—both could be true at the same time. Perhaps Herod was nervous about the sizable crowds following John and combined with the fact that John openly condemned Herod’s marriage, thus weakening Herod’s position among the people, caused Herod to want to kill him. Herodias’ daughter was really just the occasion for the act.

Point (d) above, where Josephus says that John’s baptism was for the purification of the body and not for the remission of sins, seems to be at odds somewhat with the Gospel accounts. Given the accuracy of the Gospel accounts,4 it would seem that Josephus was not entirely accurate in what he thought about John’s ministry. Whatever sources he used, they seem to represent a slightly different tradition than the Gospel writers. The fact too, that Jospehus records only general statements with regards to John’s ethic and the Gospel writers, on the other hand, record detailed descriptions of his injunctions, makes me think that the Gospel writers were privy to the actual details of the message. Of course, Jospehus was not even born when John preached, yet the Gospel writers may have indeed listened to John firsthand.

Further, Josephus appears to have had the habit of referring to “Jewish ethical responsibility” as “piety and justice.”5 If this is indeed the case, as Mason affirms, then it would appear that Jospehus’ only real concern is to present John as a very ethical Jewish person—thus he inserts his formula, “piety and justice”—not necessarily to stress the details of his message. Perhaps this accounts in part for the different purpose ascribed to John’s baptism on the side of the Gospel writers as opposed to that offered by Jospehus.6

The last point (e) has caused problems for certain scholars. Steve Mason7 thinks that the Gospel writers have annexed John for their own purposes beyond anything which the Baptist envisioned. According to Mason, they had more of a motive to use John to this end than does Josephus for his ends. Thus Josephus’ portrait of the Baptist more closely resembles John as he was. Further, Mason claims that traces in the N.T. of the real John appear in: 1) John’s wondering whether Jesus was the Christ and 2) the disciples of John in Ephesus who did not know about Jesus or the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:1-7). These incidents says Mason, point to the “integrity” of John over and against his representation by the Gospel writers as a forerunner to Messiah.

There appear to be several problems with this view. While there is no doubt that the Scriptures are in a sense propaganda, it is another thing to affirm that what they appear to report as history is really a misrepresentation of history. It is John the Baptist who historically affirmed his connection with Jesus; and the Gospel writers record this tradition—unless of course, the Gospel writers are putting words into the mouth of John that he never spoke or intended. If this is the case, then how do we know anything affirmed as historical in Scripture really is true to fact?8

Mason’s use of the incident described in Acts 19:1-7 to support the identity and message of the true John will not stand, for it presupposes that these disciples correctly understood John. But the text clearly indicates that they did not. Paul explicitly told them that part of John’s message was to believe in the one coming after him (19:4). Thus, the disciples’ understanding of John’s message, in contrast to what Mason affirms, was wrong. Therefore it cannot be used to recreate a “John” that stands outside the tradition of the Gospel writers. In fact, it works completely the opposite; it further confirms the Gospel presentation of John as the one who preceded the Messiah.

It is not necessary to set Josephus at odds with the New Testament writers on this point. Jospehus, as one not in the Christian movement, did not associate the two men—perhaps he did not realize their relationship. If he did know of it, perhaps it did not suit his purpose in writing to join them for the reader at that time. His interest in his writing is not to catalogue the beginnings and developments within Christianity—he is perhaps more interested, as Mason affirms, in developing an apologetic for the Jewish people.9

B. Jesus and Pilate

Josephus mentions Jesus Christ (i.e. the so-called Testimonium Flavinium) in two passages: Ant. 18. 3 . 3 and 20. 9. 1.10

There does not appear to be anything in both of Josephus’ accounts that would necessarily disagree with the Gospel writers. The problem seems to be whether Jospehus actually penned the final form of the first passage (i.e. Ant. 18. 3 . 3) as we have it today. The opinion of scholars, since the sixteenth century or so, has been divided. Some say that the saying as a whole is authentic. Others say that parts of the saying are from the hand of Josephus and that parts are Christian additions. And, thirdly, there are those who regard the whole statement as spurious—totally a Christian interpolation.11 It is found in three manuscripts.

I believe that the text preserves some of Josephus’ own words which were later added to by a Christian copyist(s).12 I think the basic text of Josephus was as follows:

At about this time lived Jesus, a wise man. . .he was a teacher of such people as accept the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . When Pilate, upon an indictment13 brought by the principal men among us,14 condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him from the very first did not cease to be attached to him. And the tribe of the Christians, so-called after him, has to this day still not disappeared.

I think that the following phrases were most likely written by Christian(s):

1) “if indeed one might call him a wise man. . . For. . . accomplished surprising feats” This seems to imply that the writer believed something more about Jesus—that he was more than a mere mortal. Since it appears that Jospehus never became a Christian it is hard to believe that he would write such a statement as a Jew. In other words, these sound like statements that might come from a Christian.

2) “He was the Messiah” (i.e. he was called the Christ) seems a bit strong for a Jewish historian to say about Jesus and more likely the work of a Christian. It appears to be a declaration of faith.

3) “On the third day. . . concerning him.” This is so unlikely to be from Josephus because it speaks with assurance of Jesus’ resurrection. It does not say that the Christians claimed this to be true. The text implies that Jospehus held it to be true. This is quite unlikely, especially given the fact that he didn’t even say a single word of interpretation about it. For such an incredible assertion to be made, without explanation, implies its unequivocal acceptance—hardly the position of Josephus.

Overall, I think that the record in Josephus contains his words, as shown above, with the addition of Christian “testimony.” Whatever one holds concerning the Testimonium Flavinium, one still must ask the question, “What is the value to anyone of determining its authorship?” Does anything really stand or fall on determining who wrote it? The historical conception of the person to whom the statement witnesses (i.e. Jesus) is unaltered by the passage, no matter who wrote it, and this is further confirmed by the fact that it agrees with the Gospel accounts.15

III. The Historical Reliability of Josephus

The question of the historical reliability of Josephus can only be answered by attempting to correlate what he asserts in his writings with other sources (some of which he used), whether literature, archaeology, etc. And, when no such external knowledge exists to confirm or deny his report, we must consider internal evidence, his habits, what kind of man he says he was, etc. to see whether certain of his claims are credible.16 At this point we are closer to guessing than in the first situation.

Given the above canons, it is no mystery that many scholars hold that Josephus is woefully inaccurate at times. And, it would appear from the work of Schurer, Broshi, Mason, Mosley and Yamauchi that such a conclusion is fairly warranted.17 Yet this skepticism does not need to be thorough-going, for there are many places where it appears that he has left for us a solid record of people and events—especially as regards the broad movements in history at this time. These might include facts about the Herodian dynasty, the nature of the Jewish religious sects, Roman rule over Palestine and the fall of Jerusalem. Boshi agrees that in many places Josephus errs, regarding numbers and names, but this is no grounds for dismissing all that he said as without foundation. Once again, the historical trustworthiness of Josephus, is perhaps not a flat declaration, “he is” or “he is not” but rather it proceeds on a case by case basis.18

1 Each one of the individuals mentioned here occurs in various other places in Josephus. These are general references.

2 Cf I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 292, 93. Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 481. Both authors parallel the Acts account with statements made by Seutonius; Vita Claudius, 25. 4.

3 Cf. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 410.

4 The Gospel accounts were written by people inside, more or less, the tradition of John. They probably should be trusted, ahead of Josephus, to more accurately represent their own tradition. Besides, Josephus is not writing about John as an end in itself, or even to describe the beginning s of the Christian faith, but he is using the incident to form part of a long apologetic for the Jewish nation. In this sense, John stands out as a model Jew in the midst of Herod’s unjust treatment. And, the fact that God apparently judged Herod, according to Jospehus, seems to further confirm this. But cf. Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 153, 54, who thinks that the two descriptions are essentially similar.

5 Ibid, 153.

6 One wonders also if Josephus has not thought of John as an Essene. After all, John came from the desert and (in Josephus’ mind) emphasized ritual purity.

7 Mason, 155-63.

8 All historical reporting is selective and therefore biased, but this does not mean it is ipso facto incorrect. It seems, therefore, very reasonable to believe that the Gospel writers framed their accounts of John to serve their theological purposes, but it would appear to be dishonest if they put words in his mouth with meanings he never intended.

9 Mason, 66, 67.

10 Schurer (p. 432) felt that the phrase oJ ajdelfov” jIhsou` tou` legomevnou cristou` was not an interpolation by a Christian pen.

11 For a description of these positions and authors who hold (held) them, cf. Schurer, 428-30.

12 Cf. Mason, p. 8, 9ff. on the preservation of the text by Christians.

13 Cf. Schurer, 433. His distinction here between Josephus’ account and the gospel accounts about the part played by Pilate and that played by the Jews in Jesus’ death, does not really amount to much of a problem. Both sources indicate that Pilate and the Jewish leaders were involved.

14 14 The term “us” (hJmi`n) does seem a bit “unprofessional” at first, but apparently, according to Schurer (434), Josephus made a habit of doing this in the Antiquities.

15 What I am saying here is that if it disagreed substantially and essentially with other historical records, (i.e. Gospels, etc.) then much would hang on determining its authorship to better see if the author, by looking at his other writings, is objective in what he is purporting. Also, regarding the authenticity of the passage, one must consider the question of Origen, who never mentions it; cf. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Josephus and Scripture,” Fides et Historia (Fall 1980): 54.

16 Josephus apparently set high standards for himself and criticized others for poor historiography. But he, when measured against his own canons of objectivity and truthfulness, often failed to be a good historian. Cf. A. W. Mosley, “Historical Reporting and the Ancient World,” New Testament Studies (October 1965): 23 and Broshi, 383, 84.

17 Cf. J. J. Scott, “Josephus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scott McKnight, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 393; Schurer, 57, 58. He says, that the War is superior in accuracy to the Antiquities in the recording of details and therefore of greater [historical] value; Magen Broshi, “The Credibility of Josephus,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (Spring/Autumn 1982): 383, 84; Mason, 81, 82; A. W. Mosley, 24-26 and Yamauchi, 58.

18 Broshi, 383, 84.

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