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Who Was Josephus?

posted Jan 20, 2013, 5:35 PM by Ben Franklin   [ updated Jan 20, 2013, 5:35 PM by Nate Mosley ]
Bust thought to be that of Josephus

Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish Historian who lived during the time of the Apostles. He was born a few years after Jesus’ death in 37 AD, and died around 100 AD. His father was a member of the priestly families and his mother claimed to have royal ancestry. He fought as the head of Jewish forces in Galilee during the first Jewish-Roman War and was captured by Vespasian in AD 67. Josephus ingratiated himself to Vespasian, who held him as a hostage and interpreter. After Vespasian became emperor, he granted him his freedom. Josephus then defected to the Romans and took Roman citizenship. He was present during the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, which he chronicled in detail. His two most important works were The Jewish War, which was published in about AD 75, and recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation, which lasted seven years, from 66 to 73 AD and Antiquities of the Jews, published around ~AD 94, and is a history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into 1st century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity.

The Jewish War is a description of Jewish history from the capture of Jerusalem by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 164 BC to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in the First Jewish–Roman War in 70 AD. Josephus’ description of the Fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of Herod’s Temple is especially graphic, and provides a stark picture of what Jesus meant when he said “not one stone will be left on another.”


Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.
And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.


Further, according to Josephus, over one million Jews perished when Jerusalem fell.


The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.


In the later work, Antiquities of the Jews, several New Testament characters are mentioned. Modern scholars almost universally agree that these references are authentic (not added by later scribes in an attempt to legitimize the biblical text), and describe easily researched and verifiable events and people. His writings provide a significant, extra-Biblical account of the post-Exilic period of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, and the rise of Herod the Great. He refers to the Sadducees, Jewish High Priests of the time, Pharisees and Essenes, the Herodian Temple, Quirinius' census and the Zealots, and to such figures as Pontius PilateHerod the GreatAgrippa I and Agrippa IIJohn the BaptistJames the brother of Jesus, and a centuries-long disputed reference to Jesus. Josephus represents an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism and the context of early Christianity. The fact that some of the details in Josephus do not agree with the biblical account is evidence for acceptance as what Josephus really wrote, rather than the opposite. If someone had later wanted to insert this information to somehow lend credence to the Bible, they surely would have made sure all the details agreed.


One of the more compelling passages in the works of Josephus is this one that mentions Jesus almost in passing. The text is not actually about Jesus himself; but rather his brother James, who wrote the New Testament book of James, and was a leader in the early church:


And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he 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.


The astute Bible reader will immediately recognize the name Festus as well, before whom Paul stood and gave testimony in Acts 25, at which time Paul appealed his case to Caesar, and thus was transported to Rome in chains to stand trial.


Another key figure mentioned by Josephus is John the Baptist:


Now 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... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people, might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... 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.


Again, the astute Bible reader will notice that both the gospels and Josephus refer to Herod Antipas killing John the Baptist, but differ on the details and the motive. While the gospels present this as a consequence of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias in defiance of Jewish law (as in Matthew 14:4Mark 6:18) Josephus refers to it as a pre-emptive measure by Herod to quell a possible uprising. There is no reason to suppose that both accounts can’t be true. Like any event, motives and details are difficult to interpret; and it’s certainly possible that Herod would give an “official account” of his reasons for putting John to death, rather than the real reason listed in the Gospels, especially given the sordid circumstances described there. If you don’t know this story, you should go read it.


Without doubt, the most striking passage from Josephus, and the most controversial, is called the Testimonium Flavianum, (Testimony of Flavius):


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.


Of the three passages found in Josephus' Antiquities, this passage, if authentic, would offer the most direct support for the crucifixion of Jesus. The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, but that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus with a reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate which was then subject to interpolation. There is broad consensus among scholars that Josephus actually wrote most of the passage. The passage further illustrates that the details about Jesus were well known among various Jewish and Roman sources at the time.


Why should we care or be interested in Josephus? It is important for Christians to be aware of these works from history. There are many who believe that the only evidence for early Christianity is the Bible itself, which is in fact, not true at all. The writings of Josephus not only contain extra-biblical information about the New Testament environment and the people mentioned in the Bible, but they also indicate that many of the events and characters from the Bible were known to the contemporaries of Jesus, Peter, James and Paul. The claims of the Gospels and the Apostles were easily researched and verifiable (cf. 1 Cor 15:6-8). This is even more compelling when one considers that Josephus was definitely not an apologist for the Christian faith; he was only interested in explaining Jewish society to the average Roman.