Learning Activity 50

The Jewish Historian Josephus

Because I have used and quoted the Jewish historian Josephus a number of times in the material on this web site, I thought it would be helpful to devote a brief description of this man and the part he played in recording the history of the Jewish people.

Flavius Josephus (AD 37–c.100) is the author of what has become for Christianity perhaps the most significant extra-biblical writings of the first century. His works are the principal source for the history of the Jews from the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 BC) to the fall of Masada in AD 73, and are of incomparable value for determining what happened during the late inter-testamental and New Testament time period.

Josephus, born the son of a priest, was a descendant of the Hasmoneans. He was well educated and rose to a respected position in the Jewish community. After a short association with the Essenes (the community believed to be responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls found by the shepherd boy in 1947), and a somewhat longer period as a disciple of an ascetic hermit named Banus, he decided at the age of nineteen to join the Pharisees. When he was twenty-six (AD 63) he traveled to Rome and successfully pleaded for the release of some fellow priests who had been sent there to be tried by Nero. As a result of that visit he returned to his homeland impressed by the power of the Roman Empire and strongly opposed the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 66, being convinced of its ultimate futility and fearing the consequences for his nation.

Being unable to restrain the rebellion, he reluctantly joined it and assumed a command in Galilee where he fortified a number of cities, storing up provisions and training his army in anticipation of the arrival of Vespasian and his forces. But Josephus had no military experience and his men were no match for the Roman army. By the spring of AD 67, Josephus and his army had been forced to retreat to the fortified city of Jotapata where they held out for 47 days before hiding in a well for several days before being captured. When Josephus was brought before Vespasian he managed to flatter him into keeping him as an aide instead of sending him to Nero in Rome. During this time Josephus became directly acquainted with and gained the favor of Vespasian but was considered a traitor by his own people.

When Vespasian became emperor in AD 69, Josephus was officially set free. He returned to Jerusalem with Titus, Vespasian’s son and future emperor, where he served the Roman commander as an interpreter and mediator. Faced with the inevitability of the Roman forces’ ultimate victory, Josephus attempted to convince the Jews fighting for the city of Jerusalem to surrender and thereby save the city. He was unsuccessful, and in AD 70 the city fell to the Romans and was demolished. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus returned to Rome with Titus and settled there on an imperial pension of the emperor gaining the rights of a Roman citizen and adopting the emperor’s family name, Flavius, and began his literary endeavors.

Josephus was the most significant non-Christiasn witness to the historical life of Jesus. He wrote five major works in his lifetime: Life, his autobiography; Contra Apion, a defense of Judaism; The Jewish War, an eyewitness account of the revolt of the Jews against Rome (time period of 66-74 AD); Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades; and The Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews from Adam to his own generation.

His first work, The War of the Jews, was written to give a general history of the wars from the time of the Maccabees to the great war with Rome which resulted in the final demise of the nation of Israel. Josephus’ eyewitness account of the last years of resistance and particularly of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Titus are valuable to a proper understanding of those events and how they interrelate with Jewish and Christian history. Josephus’ other major work and his longest, The Antiquities of the Jews, published some twenty years later, was written primarily for the benefit of the non-Jewish world. This work is a history of the Jewish nation from the earliest times (he begins with an account of the biblical creation narrative) to Josephus’ own time and was intended to show that the Jews enjoyed an even greater antiquity than did the Greeks.

It is impossible to overemphasize the contribution of Josephus to our understanding of the social, political and religious milieu of the New Testament era. Archeological discoveries at Qumran (the Essene community of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Masada indicate that the writing of Josephus is remarkably accurate.

Most of what we know about the Jewish/Roman war is because of what Josephus has recorded. Even the great church historian Eusebius, and many others, gained most of their information from Josephus. His accounts are from an eye witness Jew and this makes his point of view very valuable as he would not relate his recordings to favor the Christian viewpoint, yet this is what happens by his accurate historical record. Since Josephus had so many enemies in the Jewish nation who would have readily convicted him of any falsification, had he been guilty of any, they certainly would have surfaced and been revealed in history. No such critique has been found to exist.

Josephus was a writer who neither favored Christianity nor his own nation, however we must marvel at the fact that in spite of his bias he recorded much striking evidence which historically verifies the prophesies contained in the Gospels and the book of Revelation.

Adam Clarke (1715–1832) concerning Josephus writes that, “Every thing which our Lord foretold should come on the temple, city, and people of the Jews, has been fulfilled in the most correct and astonishing manner; and witnessed by a writer [Josephus] who was present during the whole, who was himself a Jew, and is acknowledged to be an historian of indisputable veracity in all those transactions which concern the destruction of Jerusalem. Without having designed it, he [Josephus] has written a commentary on our Lord’s words, and shown how every detail was punctually fulfilled, though he knew nothing of the Scripture which contained this remarkable prophecy.”

Thomas Newton in his 1754 writing entitled, Dissertations on the Prophecies, writes, “As a general in the wars [Josephus] must have had an exact knowledge of all transactions, and as a Jewish priest he would not relate them with any favour of partiality to the Christian cause. His history was approved by Vespasian and Titus (who ordered it published) and by King Agrippa and many others, both Jews and Romans, who were present in those wars. He designed nothing less, and yet as if he had designed nothing more, his history of the Jewish wars may serve as a larger comment on our Saviours prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem” (Newton, Page 433).

Josephus also gives us a historical record that James was in fact the brother of Jesus:

“…but this younger Ananus who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity {to exercise his authority}. 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, {or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned;”
Antiquities, Book 20, Chapter 9, Paragraph 1, Lines 199, 200.

Given this brief historical background of the man Josephus and the material he recorded, it is probable that most serious students of the Bible would have a copy of his material on their bookshelf. Although it is not to be taken as the inspired word of God, the works of Josephus are valuable tools in gaining insight and verification of many historical aspects of the Scriptures, therefore, I will make use of statements made by Josephus in the materials on this web site.

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