2012 YAMAUCHI LECTURE

 


 

JOSEPHUS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

 

by Doug Ward



OXFORD, OHIO-There is a lengthy "wish list" of lost, unavailable, or nonexistent books that students of Christian history would love to see. Items in this list would surely include:

a book of Second Acts to tell us more about what happened to Paul after the events recorded in Acts 28, and to say more about the journeys of other apostles;

additional epistles that are no longer available, such as Paul's letter to the Laodiceans (Col 3:16);

the five-volume works of Papias and Hegesippus from which Eusebius of Caesarea quotes in his Ecclesiastical History.


But while we are waiting for these books to appear someday, there are plenty of sources available to keep us busy. In particular, the works of Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, contain a treasure trove of information.1

 

Historian Paul L. Maier believes that while Josephus's name is widely known, his books do not receive enough attention from today's readers.2 Maier, who retired in 2011 after a distinguished fifty-year teaching career at Western Michigan University, is a dynamic speaker who still lectures frequently. On March 17, 2012, he explained the value of Josephus's works in a lecture at Miami University entitled, "Josephus and the New Testament."

 

Life of Josephus



Dr. Maier began with a quick summary of the life of Josephus. According to his autobiography, Josephus was born in Jerusalem in 37 A.D., the son of a priest named Matthias and a mother who came from the royal family of the Hasmoneans. A gifted student, he claimed that by the time he was fourteen, sages sought his opinion on questions relating to the Torah. As a teenager, he studied for three years under a desert hermit named Bannus. After considering the doctrines of the main sects of Judaism, he decided at age nineteen to become a Pharisee.3

 

When Josephus was about twenty six, he traveled to Rome to campaign (successfully) for the release of some priests who had been kept in custody by the emperor Nero. The trip left him impressed with Rome's magnificence and power, so he was dismayed upon his return to Judea to find his nation on the brink of a revolt against Rome. Though opposed to the revolt, he was put in charge of preparations for war in Galilee, where he supervised the construction of defensive walls around the major cities and began to organize and train an army.

 

In 67 A.D., the Roman general Vespasian brought a large force to Galilee and laid siege to Jotapata, where Josephus and his men were located. The defenders of Jotapata fought valiantly, finally succumbing after forty seven days. When the Romans entered the city, Josephus escaped to an underground pit with a group of forty survivors. Over Josephus's objections, this group wanted to commit suicide when the Romans discovered their hiding place. Josephus finally convinced the group to draw lots, with an agreement that person number two would kill person number one, person number three would kill person number two, etc. When only Josephus and one other person remained, Josephus convinced his companion to join him in surrendering to the Romans.

 

Vespasian initially decided that he would send Josephus to the Emperor Nero for prosecution, but Josephus talked him out of this idea, proclaiming that Vespasian and his son Titus would become emperors themselves. Vespasian decided to spare the life of this "prophet". For the remainder of the war, Josephus served the Romans as an interpreter. Afterwards, Josephus received generous financial support from Vespasian and the Flavian family, giving him the opportunity to concentrate on writing the history of the Jewish people. Maier estimated that Josephus wrote the equivalent of twenty eight scrolls, with a scroll being the length of one of the New Testament Gospels.

 

Valuable Biblical Background



From this brief account of Josephus's life, it is clear that he was an opportunist with a healthy instinct for self-preservation. But it is too harsh, Maier asserted, to label him a traitor, as many have done over the centuries. In Josephus's favor it should be noted that the historian did much in his writing to promote and defend Jewish culture and values.

 

All students of the Bible are indebted to Josephus for providing such a wealth of historical information. His retelling of biblical narratives in Antiquities is a rich source of data on first-century Jewish biblical interpretation and traditions. His accounts of the Maccabean period (War, Book 1; Antiquities, Books 12-13) supplement what is available in First and Second Maccabees. Above all, his work is indispensable for New Testament study, as Maier illustrated with several examples.

 

Thanks to Josephus's detailed chronicle of the ongoing soap opera of the Herod family, we know that the Herod in Matthew 2 is Herod the Great; the Herod in Mark 6 and Luke 13:31; 23:7-12 is Herod Antipas; the Herod in Acts 12 is Agrippa I; and the King Agrippa in Acts 25-26 is Agrippa II. Moreover, the information in Josephus backs up the biblical accounts. The kind of paranoia exhibited by Herod the Great in ordering the death of the male infants in Bethlehem (Matt 2) is well documented in Josephus, and Josephus's account of the death of Agrippa I (Ant 19.viii) corroborates what we read in Acts 12.

 

Josephus's description of the ministry and arrest of John the Baptist (Ant 18.v.2) are consistent with the Gospel accounts. Josephus adds the detail that John was imprisoned and executed at the fortress Macherus in Perea. When Maier asked his audience the name of the daughter of Herodias who asked for John's head on a platter (Mark 6:22-25), most knew that her name was Salome. This is another detail for which we have Josephus to thank (Ant 18.v.4).

 

We also are indebted to Josephus for our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of James the Just, the first leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21; 21:18; Gal 2:9, 12), in A.D. 62 (Ant 20.ix.1). Maier referred to the martyrdom of James as "Good Friday 2" because of the parallels between the execution of James and that of Jesus of Nazareth:


The victims were half brothers, both known to be morally upright.



Both martyrdoms took place during the Passover season.



The deaths were engineered by Sadducean high priests, a father and son both named Annas or Ananus.



Both victims were charged with blasphemy.



Both victims were convicted after rigged judicial proceedings.



We can piece these parallels together from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea, who uses the work of Josephus and Hegesippus. The fact that James could be put to death in such a manner supports the credibility of the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus.

 

Maier noted that Josephus provides four times as much information about Pontius Pilate as do the Gospels, helping to explain the political circumstances surrounding the decisions made by that infamous Roman procurator. Although Josephus does not mention Paul of Tarsus, he does discuss the procurators Felix and Festus, about whom we read in the book of Acts. Josephus's descriptions of the layout of the Temple complex, including the "boundary signs" restricting the movements of Gentiles and the location where Roman soldiers were stationed, help us picture the events chronicled in Acts 21.

 

Josephus twice mentions Jesus, once in passing as the brother of James (Ant 20.ix.1), and again in more detail in connection with his crucifixion by Pilate (Ant 18.iii.3). The latter passage, known as the Testimonium Flavium, underwent some Christian tampering in the early centuries A.D. to produce what looks like a short Christian confession of faith. However, many scholars today believe that it is possible to reliably reconstruct the original statement of Josephus. That original statement is a key piece of extrabiblical evidence pointing to the existence of Jesus.4

 

Although Josephus was not a Christian, his work constitutes a priceless gift to Christianity, painstakingly preserved through nineteen centuries. Maier stated that Josephus is still a key source of information and predicted that in coming years, scholars will mine even more valuable nuggets from his writings.


Footnotes:

1Some previous Grace & Knowledge articles that draw heavily from Josephus are "Cain and his Family: A Survey of the Scriptural and Legendary Traditions" in Issue 22; and "Is There Buried Treasure in King David's Tomb?" in Issue 11.

 

2To promote greater familiarity with Josephus among English-language readers, Maier has compiled Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988), a modern English translation of the highlights of Josephus's Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War.

 

3Josephus and the apostle Paul (Acts 26:5) are the only known examples of people who identify themselves in writing as Pharisees.

 

4For a more detailed discussion of the Testimonium Flavium, see Part 5 of our series on the Apostles' Creed in Issue 6 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 27

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