Josephus

Jewish War Correspondent

As the Bible reader moves from Malachi to Matthew, he encounters many new ideas, movements, and institutions never mentioned in the Old Testament. In the Gos­pels, for example, he reads about synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Romans. These words and many others never appeared before to him. He also may be informed that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek. He may wonder how such new ideas and changes took place. The answers to his questions lie in an understanding of what Christians call the “Intertestamental Period,” while Jews generally refer to it as the “Second Temple Period” It is that important period of time viewed from approximately 400 B.C. to 1 A.D. A popular book on this period by H. A. Ironside is titled The Four Hundred Silent Years. However, the period was anything but “silent,” since an enormous number of events took place giving birth to many movements, all of which serve as a rich background to the later events of New Testament times. The word “silent” refers to the fact that the prophetic voice was silent during this period – a fact recognized even by Jewish writers.

How can we discover what happened during these tumultuous yet fascinating years? The most thorough source is the writings of the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus.

There was a time a few hundred years ago when nearly every Christian household had, alongside the King James Version of the Bible, the Whiston translation of Josephus’ works. The tiny print and crowded format of that edition, however, still deter even the most determined readers today. The recent publication of a new, more readable edition called Josephus: The Essential Writings, translated by Paul Maier, should prompt all of us to reexamine the life and writings of this man which are so important to our study and understanding of the Old and New Testament writings. In a manner that would probably please this “Jewish War Correspondent,” let us answer these three questions: (1) Who was Flavius Josephus? (2) What did he write? and (3) Why is he important?

WHO WAS JOSEPHUS?

Josephus was born in 37 A.D., just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was born Joseph ben Matthias, from one of the best known priestly families in Jerusalem. His mother was descended from the royal Hasmonean family, more popularly known as the “Maccabees.” Josephus’ own description of his childhood reveals perhaps more of his conceit than the facts: “While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of letters; insomuch.that the chief priests and the leading men of the city constantly came to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances.”

Josephus then investigated the teachings of the three main Jewish “sects” of his day -the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Pharisees. He is one of the main sources on the beliefs of these important groups. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Pharisees.

After a visit to Rome, where he got his first, but not his last, taste of Roman life, he returned to Judea at the beginning of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. He was soon made commander of the military forces in Galilee and began to prepare for the inevitable invasion of the Roman legions. In 67 A.D. Josephus’ forces were besieged by Vespasian’s army at a Galilean fortress called Jotapata. Rather than surrender, the last ten survivors agreed to kill each other by drawing lots. But when Josephus and one other remained, he persuaded his companion that they should surrender to the Romans and hope for mercy.

Josephus soon predicted that his captor, Vespasian, would be elevated as the emperor of Rome -an event which indeed did transpire three years later. For the remainder of the war, Josephus accompanied Vespasian and later his son, Titus, until Jerusalem was conquered and burned in 70 A.D. Therefore, he was an eyewitness to the tragic events which transpired and has provided us with a firsthand account as an ancient Jewish war correspondent.

Following the war, Josephus received Roman citizen­ship and took the family name of Vespasian, Flavius. He was provided a villa near Rome where he spent the rest of his days writing historical, biographical, and apologetic works before dying near the end of the century.

Estimates of Josephus’ character mostly center around his questionable behavior at his capture. It also should be noted that Josephus’ own explanation of his actions is quite self-serving. While he always praised the deeds of his Roman patrons, he also defended the Jewish Scriptures and beliefs. He blamed the Jewish rebellion on “hotheads” among them – revolutionary types who plunged a gentle, peace-loving people into the destructive caldron of a no-win war with Rome.

Whatever be the true estimation of Josephus’ character, it is universally recognized that without his writings, our knowledge of this period would be greatly inferior. Josephus the man remains an enigma. Josephus the writer deserves our deepest appreciation.

WHAT DID HE WRITE?

Josephus composed four different works: one is biographical; one is apologetic; two are historical.

THE LIFE: This is not a true autobiography but is mainly a defense of his actions at Jotapata during the war. He describes his first 25 years in two pages and devotes the rest of the space to his conduct during the early months of the rebellion against Rome. It is the least valuable of Josephus’ writings.

AGAINST APION: Apion was an anti-Semitic Gentile who had earlier launched a slanderous attack against the Jews before the Emperor Caligula Josephus brilliantly defends his people and their Scriptures by answering the allegations in a most interesting and persuasive manner.

THE JEWISH WAR: Rightly considered as Josephus’ masterpiece, this is his vivid, eyewitness account of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66-73 A.D.). It is sometimes referred to by its Latin title Bellum Judaicum or  “B.J.” for short. Sometimes this work is published separately and is an invaluable primary source on the topography of Jerusalem. It also contains a moving description of the fortress Masada and the mass suicide of Jewish soldiers which took place there.

THE ANTIQUITIES: Josephus’ longest work in 20 books ambitiously traces the history of the Jewish people from their biblical roots to the beginning of the war in 65 A.D. His treatment of the Old Testament accounts is sometimes straightforward, almost reproducing the biblical text word for word. However, often he adds many details, and at other times he makes glaring omissions.

Josephus includes many folklore stories found in rabbinic midrashim, or elaboration of the biblical stories. For example, Josephus believed Abraham deduced that God is one through observing the celestial phenomena. According to Genesis 12:10, Abraham went down to Egypt because of a famine. But according to The Antiquities, he went down to Egypt to debate with the wise men there. Such elaboration of the biblical text was not viewed as “tampering” by the Jewish ancients but as examples of concentrating on the inner experience and motivation of the characters. If we view Josephus as guilty in this realm, it must be remembered that many modern-day preachers do the same in their sermons.

On the other hand, he omits many episodes which he regarded as disreputable or unflattering to the Jewish “heroes,” such as Jacob’s trickery (Gen. 30:37-38); the Tamar incident (Gen. 38); Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian {Ex. 2:12); Miriam’s leprosy (Num. 12); and Moses’ striking of the rock (Num. 20:10-12).

Read judiciously, The Antiquities provides us with a fascinating account of Jewish history including invaluable insights into such diverse characters as Alexander the Great, the Maccabees, and Herod the Great.

WHY IS JOSEPHUS IMPORTANT?

Many articles in our Bible dictionaries would be considerably shortened or even omitted if we did not have Josephus’ writings. With all of his “faults,” he remains our main historical source for the period from approximately 400 B.C. to 73 A.D. He complements the New Testament accounts by providing innumerable historical and cultural details which shed light on many characters and events.

Josephus discusses most of the main non-Christian characters in the New Testament such as Herod the Great {Mt. 2), his son Herod Antipas (Mk. 6:14-29), his grandson Herod Agrippa (cf. Acts 12), and his great grandson Agrippa 11 (Acts 26). He has a vivid account of Pontius Pilate’s rule as well as a detailed description of the magnificent Herodian Temple in Jerusalem. As they have conducted their excavations, archaeologists have continually praised Josephus’ accurate portrayal of New Testament period Jerusalem.

In The Antiquities, Josephus also provides an interesting description of John the Baptist’s preaching. It is Josephus who informs us that Herodias’ daughter, who danced for Herod Antipas, was named Salome and that John was imprisoned in the fortress Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea where he was also executed.

The New Testament mentions that Jesus’ brother James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem around 50 A.D. (Acts 15:3-23). Josephus further describes the stoning execution of  this same James under the instigation of the high priest Ananus in 62 A.D., adding the note that even the non-Christian Jews objected to this atrocity committed on a godly, well-respected man. But Josephus’ most celebrated and controversial passage is his brief description of Jesus found in The Antiquities XVIII, 63. The passage reads as follows:

About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was the achiever of extraordinary deeds and was a teacher of those who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When he was indicted by the principal men among us and Pilate condemned him to be crucified, those who had come to love him originally did not cease to do so; for he appeared to them on the third day restored to life, as the prophets of the Deity had foretold these and countless marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.

Sometimes this passage has been cited as evidence that Josephus was really a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah. However, he gives no evidence of such a belief in the rest of his writings, particularly in his apologetic work, Against Apion. While there are some critics who believe that the entire passage was inserted by a later Christian editor (e.g., Eusebius), the language reflects a non-Christian author (e.g., calling Jesus a “wise man” and referring to Christians as a “tribe”). There is much evidence for viewing the passage as an authentic witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is difficult to comprehend, however, how Josephus could write the clear confession of faith, “He was the Messiah.” Perhaps the suggestion that the passage is genuine with a few slight alterations by later Christian editors is the best approach.

We have seen that Josephus is not a reliable guide when he expands on the Old Testament stories for his own purposes. He is indispensable, however, for a fuller understanding of the New Testament era. Read with care, he can prove to be an invaluable companion to the study of the Scriptures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Features

From the Editor May/Jun 2021

Shortly after I became a Christian in 1980, I was invited to a luncheon sponsored by the local branch of a nondenominational, evangelical Christian organization...

A Letter to My Dad

Another Father’s Day is just around the corner. My dad passed away in 2008; and at age 97, my mom still misses him. Perhaps that was why she showed me...

From Death to Life

Population 4.18 million. Situated like a jewel by the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, it beckons to tourists from around the world to enjoy its nonstop nightlife...

Getting the ‘Package Deal’

“What do you mean you became a Christian at 21? Aren’t you a pastor’s daughter?” an older gentleman asked me...

He Never Let Go

My story begins with my father, who was enjoying recognition as a successful research chemist despite two big problems: He was a functioning alcoholic and an atheist...

What is the Gospel?

Many years ago, my wife and I were invited to dinner at the home of a prominent older woman. She knew governors and senators and had been friends with Albert Einstein...


Share Your Story. Has God used The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry in your life? Share your story with us!
 

Subscription Options

1 Year Digital Subscription

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads

$9.99 every year

1 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Complete Access to Our Growing Archive—Eventually Back Through Our Inaugural Issue In 1942
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads of Current Issues and Select Archives

$19.99 every year

2 Year Digital Subscription

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads

$19.99 every 2 years

2 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Complete Access to Our Growing Archive—Eventually Back Through Our Inaugural Issue In 1942
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads of Current Issues and Select Archives

$39.99 every 2 years

3 Year Digital Subscription

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads

$29.99 every 3 years

3 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • *Free PDF Book Download - What on Earth is God Doing? by Renald Showers
  • *Complete Access to Our Growing Archive—Eventually Back Through Our Inaugural Issue In 1942
  • *Free Full-Issue PDF Downloads of Current Issues and Select Archives

$59.99 every 3 years

Free 1 Year Digital Subscription

Unlimited Articles

Unlimited Posts

Free