Josephus: What He Wrote

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 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/murder 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 sometimes 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. 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 provide 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 as well as some key New Testament personalities.

Josephus on John, James, and Jesus

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 II (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 description of New Testament period Jerusalem.

In The Antiquities of the Jews, 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 any of 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 (namely, 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 sentence that appears to be a clear confession of faith, “He was the Messiah.” Perhaps the best approach is the suggestion that a number of other scholars have proposed. In this approach, the passage is viewed as genuinely written by Josephus with a few slight alterations by a later Christian editor. This would satisfy what appears to be both Christian and non-Christian elements in the passage. At the very least, however, the Josephus reference serves as a historical attestation to Jesus’ existence and to the basic form of his teaching.

We have seen that Josephus is not a reliable guide when he expands on the OT stories, and when he writes about his own personal role in certain events, we need to read him very critically. He is indispensable, however, for a fuller understanding of the NT era. Much of our knowledge of the Jewish world in the NT period is derived from his eyewitness descriptions. Read with care, he can prove to be an invaluable companion to the study of the Scriptures, especially the Gospels and Acts.