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Josephus and Why He Is Important for Biblical Studies

Introduction

Who was Josephus?

Engraving of Josephus from William Whiston's 1737 translation of his works.

Josephus is the common name for the famous Jewish historian and author, Titus Flavius Josephus, whose major works were written during the Roman occupation and encompass the destruction of Jerusalem.


The writings of Josephus are an important witness to the events and people of the first century as chronicled in the New Testament. They also serve as a significant example of what biblical interpretation looked like during the Second Temple period and illustrate how the Old Testament was received. The below will answer these questions:


  1. Who was Josephus?
  2. Why is Josephus important for biblical studies?
  3. What did Josephus write?
  4. Where can I learn more about Josephus?

Who Was Josephus?


Titus Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian, military general, and ambassador for Rome. Josephus was a highly educated aristocrat, born into a wealthy family with strong ties to the Jewish priesthood. His place within the Jewish social and economic elite is evident in his role in negotiating with Emperor Nero for the release of 12 Jewish priests.

Josephus served as a military commander during critical periods of Jewish resistance against Roman occupation in the first century. He was appointed military governor of Galilee during the first Jewish-Roman war, during which he was taken captive after a failed collective suicide attempt. He and 40 of his men were trapped by Roman forces in 67 AD—and Josephus and one other man were captured. He was later released by Vespasian in 69 AD after correctly predicting the latter would become emperor.

In 71 AD, Josephus went to Rome under the employ of Titus and there enjoyed the privileges of both Roman citizenship and patronage. Titus bestowed upon him land and a pension in conquered Judea. During this time, Josephus wrote his known works under the patronage of the Flavian dynasty.

The sack of Jerusalem was recorded in vivid detail by Josephus, who was an eyewitness to the events.


Why Is Josephus Important for Biblical Studies?

The writings of Josephus are considered a primary source for understanding the world in which Jesus lived, died, and rose again because they come from the period in which Christ walked the earth. As such, they include historical information concurrent with the testimony of the New Testament.

First, Josephus provides first-hand accounts of the various Jewish sects who were active at the time of Jesus. He is considered by many scholars to have been a Pharisee, and he famously ridiculed the Sadducees as corrupt elitists (AJ 17.42). Josephus’ writings include details about these groups that both affirm the gospel witness and also provide additional information about their beliefs and perceptions.

Second, Josephus offers a historical record in which Jesus Christ, James the brother of Jesus, and John the Baptist are mentioned by name. His reference to Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews is referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum:


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them, spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (AJ 18.3.3)


The reference to James is also found in Antiquities of the Jews:


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; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (AJ 20.9.1)


Finally, Josephus mentions John the Baptist, also in Antiquities of the Jews:


Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I mentioned before, and was put there to death. (AJ 18.5.2)


Despite various arguments against their authenticity (primarily directed against the first reference to Jesus), this threefold testimony to persons and events found in the gospel narratives is significant because, at a minimum, it confirms a man named Jesus existed. Jesus’ notoriety was such that Josephus felt it was worth recording in his people’s history. Josephus’ confirmation of the death—and influence—of John the Baptist is further testimony to the historical validity and context of the Synoptic Gospels in which the account is found (cf. Matt 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–27; Luke 9:9).

Third, in Josephus, we find one of the most important and elaborate examples of how Jewish interpreters engaged with the Old Testament in the first century AD. At that time, the Jewish people already had a long interpretive tradition that used the Old Testament as a primary source text, either to craft fascinating new narratives about legendary Jewish heroes (1–4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon) or to colorfully rewrite the origins of the Jewish people (i.e., Jubilees, Pseudo-Philo). Josephus’ History of the Jews is an excellent example of a “rewritten Bible” in which he refashioned biblical characters to make them more relatable to his readers.

1st century Roman bust

1st century Roman bust

The Writings of Josephus

There are four primary resources for reading Josephus:

Additional Resources

Video lectures
  • Josephus: The Man and the Myths, Part 1 | Part 2
    Professor John Barclay is a leading scholar in New Testament and Second Temple Judaism and a recognized authority on Josephus. He is the author of Against Apion (Leiden: Brill, 2007) in the Brill commentary series on Josephus. In this two-part lecture series, he discusses the legendary Josephus of history.
  • Who Was Josephus?
    Professor Helen Bond is a world-renowned scholar of Christian Origins. She presents a concise biography of Josephus in this video produced by SBL’s “Bible Odyssey” initiative
  • Who Was Josephus? Jewish Biography as History
    Dr. Henry Abrahamson is Dean of Lander College of Arts and Sciences, Touro College, in New York. He specializes in Jewish history and thought and presents a good overview of Josephus in this extended lecture.
  • Josephus and Jesus: a Christian forgery?
    Dr. Chris Forbes is Senior Lecturer of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. He is an expert in New Testament history, including the intersection of Greco-Roman culture and the rise of Christianity in the ancient world. In this interview, Dr Forbes addresses the claim of forgery concerning the first reference to Jesus in Antiquities.
Other resources
Logos Resources
  • Flavius Josephus Collection(Brill)
    Flavius Josephus Collection

    The five-volume Flavius Josephus Collection (Brill) contains one compositional-critical study by Steve Mason and four of the world-class Translation and Commentary volumes by Brill covering The Life of Josephus and Books 1–10 of Judean Antiquities. This collection has been reviewed by Ryan Nelson at Faithlife:


  • Brill Josephus and History Collection
    Brill Josephus and History Collection

    The two-volume Brill Josephus and History Collection includes the first comprehensive study of Josephus’ historical method and the only complete Latin concordance of the missing Greek portions of Contra Apion. Leading Josephus scholars Louis H. Feldman and John R. Levison contributed to this collection.


  • Studies in Josephus' Rewritten Bible
    Studies in Josephus' Rewritten Bible

    Studies in Josephus' Rewritten Bible is a collection of 30 years of studies by renowned scholar Louis H. Feldman on numerous topics of interest in Antiquities of the Jews. In this collection, Feldman focuses on how Josephus resolved contradictions and theological perspectives evident in the Antiquities (his so-called “rewritten Bible”). The essays also consider instances where Josephus radically changes the presentation of particular biblical characters such as Ahab, Hezekiah, and Zedekiah.


  • Josephus, the Bible, and History
    Studies in Josephus' Rewritten Bible

    Josephus, the Bible, and History is a collection of essays by various scholars examining Josephus’ relationship to Scripture and significant events in ancient history. The collection is edited by leading Josephus scholars Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata.


  • Brill Josephus and the Bible Collection
    Brill Josephus and the Bible Collection

    The four-volume includes a comprehensive study of the Jewish Passover in Josephus, numerous essays by leading scholars on the issue of Josephus’ use of the Old Testament, and comprehensive indices for Old Testament references in Josephus’s writings.

Logos Courses
  • New Testament: Advanced Background and Context Studies Certificate Program
    New Testament: Advanced Background and Context Studies Certificate Program

    New Testament: Advanced Background and Context Studies Certificate Program includes numerous sections discussing the importance of Josephus to the NT writings, including references to Pilate (Craig Evans), the resurrection of Jesus (Michael Licona), and the witness of Antiquities to the NT (Craig Evans). These courses are also available in the seven-course The Gospels and History Bundle.


  • Studies in the Gospels Bundle
    Studies in the Gospels Bundle

    The Studies in the Gospels Bundle is a series of studies by world-renowned scholars that focuses on Jesus’ life and ministry as presented in the four Gospels. The bundle includes Craig Evans’ course, The World of Jesus and the Gospels, which includes a section on Searching the Writings of Josephus for Mentions of Christ.


  • NT202 A Survey of Jewish History and Literature from the Second Temple Period with Joel Willitts
    In NT202 A Survey of Jewish History and Literature from the Second Temple Period, Joel Willitts surveys a vast array of Second Temple literature, from the Old Testament Apocrypha to the writings of Philo and Josephus.

  • NT307 Archaeology and the New Testament with Craig Evans
    NT307 Archaeology and the New Testament includes a lesson on Finding Pilate in the Writings of Josephus and Philo.

  • NT313 Jesus and the Witness of the Outsiders with Craig Evans
    NT313 Jesus and the Witness of the Outsiders includes sections on Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and Translations of Josephus and Rabbinic Literature.

  • CS151 Philosophy of History with Michael Licona
    CS151 Philosophy of History includes a lesson dedicated to Josephus.