David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian. He wrote around the end of the first century AD, and his two most significant works were the 'Jewish War' and the 'Antiquities of the Jews'.

Josephus was born around 37 AD, and became a Pharisee. He then joined the zealots who rebelled against Roman rule between 66 and 74AD, becoming a leader of their forces in Galilee, and living through the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. He was captured by the Romans, and would have been executed, but he went over to them.

Josephus became the Roman emperor's adviser on Jewish affairs, and died in about 98 AD. 'Josephus' was his Jewish name, and he took the name 'Flavius' in honour of the family of his imperial sponsor. His 'Jewish War' was largely based on his first-hand experiences. It focuses on the period AD 66 to 73. 'Antiquities of the Jews' covers the whole of history up to AD 66. Out of twenty books, six cover the period from the reign of Herod the Great to AD 66 - i.e. the period when Jesus lived.

In his writings, Josephus mentions the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. He mentions Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, Jesus (twice) and James the brother of Jesus. He also mentions the Essenes - the strict religious sect within Judaism that founded the Qumran community, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. In fact, Josephus says that he spent some time with the Essenes. This is how he describes it (Cited by Carsten Peter Thiede in 'The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish origins of Christianity.'):

When I was about sixteen, I wanted to gain first-hand experience of our different movements. There are three: first, the Pharisees, second the Sadducees, and third the Essenes - as I have noted frequently. I thought I would be able to choose the best, by learning about all these schools. Thus I steeled myself for the task and studied the three courses with some effort.

In book 18 of the Antiquities, 63-64, the text of Josephus as we have it today says:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is lawful to call him a man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the prophets of God had foretold these and ten thousand other wonders about him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.'

In fact, this text is a bit too much of a good thing for our purposes. It seems unlikely that a Jew such as Josephus would have written some of the things in this passage. Most scholars today agree that it has been altered by early Christians seeking to 'improve' it. It seems more likely that Josephus originally wrote something like this:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.'

Even without the questionable additions, notice what this passage tells us about Jesus:

  • He was a real historical person
  • He was a teacher
  • He was a worker of wonders (miracles)
  • He gathered a band of followers, who continued to follow him after his death.

However, there is a second reference to Jesus in the works of Josephus. In Antiquities 20.200, he describes how, in AD 62, the high priest Ananus was deposed because he had illegally

convened the Sanhedrin [the highest Jewish religious court / governing body]. He had brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, who was called James, and some other men, whom he accused of having broken the law, and handed them over to be stoned.

Notice the following points from this quotation from Josephus:

  • Jesus had a brother called James
  • James was executed by the Jewish leaders in AD 62
  • There were claims that Jesus was the Messiah (that is, the Christ).

There is one other important point to notice from this quotation. Most scholars do not doubt the authenticity of this second reference to Jesus. Yet this passage refers to Jesus as the 'so-called Christ'. This brief comment appears to link back to Josephus' earlier reference to Jesus, and may even show that what he originally wrote there included some such comment as 'Jesus the so-called Christ.' Several of the books listed include some discussion of these passages from Josephus.

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