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Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian who wrote about Jesus


William Whiston | PD

John Burger - published on 03/30/19

"There was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works," he wrote in the year 93.

Flavius Josephus is one of the most controversial figures in the history of 1st-century Palestine, but his written histories have entered the canon of classic literature, and some Christians point to him as proof of Jesus’ messianic claim.

Josephus has been reviled by many Jews of his time and since, but not necessarily for his alleged pro-Christian stance.

Born Joseph ben Matthias in A.D. 37 or 38 of an aristocratic priestly family in Jerusalem, he later did something that will be familiar to anyone listening to the Gospel at the beginning of Lent: at age 16, he went into the wilderness with a hermit member of one of the ascetic Jewish sects that were active around the time of Jesus. He stayed there much longer than Jesus’ 40 day sojourn—three years, in fact.

He then returned to Jerusalem and joined the Pharisees. This group of devout Jews followed the Torah strictly, but they “had no sympathy with the intense Jewish nationalism of such sects as the military patriotic Zealots and were willing to submit to Roman rule if only the Jews could maintain their religious independence,” says the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

On a trip to Rome in 64, Josephus was very impressed with Roman culture and military might. He was drawn reluctantly into the Jewish revolt of 66 and became a commander in Galilee, ending up defending the fortress of Jotapata. After the fall of the city he took refuge in a cave with 40 rebels, who wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender. Such a practice was actually carried out in the more famous siege at Masada several years later, an incident that Josephus also chronicled. Nevertheless, at Jotapata, Josephus convinced the holdouts that suicide was immoral but that each man could kill another until practically no one was left. “Curiously,” Britannica recounts, “Josephus contrived to draw the last lot, and, as one of the two surviving men in the cave, he prevailed upon his intended victim to surrender to the Romans.”

Now Josephus himself became a prisoner of the Romans, but his life was spared when he accurately prophesied that Vespasian, commander of the Roman legion in Galilee, would become emperor.

It was at that time that Josephus “attached himself to the Roman cause,” even taking Vespasian’s family name of Flavius. He later joined the Roman forces. Unfortunately, being hated by his fellow Jews and distrusted by the Romans, he could not carry out his dreamed-of mediation between the two sides. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, he moved to Rome.

The works he composed there include his History of the Jewish War, which is the “principal source for the Jewish revolt” and “especially valuable for its description of Roman military tactics and strategy,” says Britannica.

His Antiquities of the Jews, which he completed in 93, is a sweeping history beginning with the Creation. It is in Book 18 of this 20-book work that he mentions Jesus. According to some translations, the passage reads:

There was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:3:3).

While scholars accept that Josephus mentioned Jesus, they suspect that a Christian scribe amended the passage to portray Jesus in a positive light.

The following passage, in which Josephus mentions Jesus and his “brother” James, firmly establishes the existence of Jesus:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] 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 (Antiquities 20:9:1).

The Catholic Encyclopedia, first published in 1910, says that the early Christians were “zealous readers of Josephus’ History of the Jews, and the Fathers of the Church, such as Jerome and Ambrose, as well as the early ecclesiastical historians like Eusebius, are fond of quoting him in their works.

“St. [John] Chrysostom calls him a useful expounder of the historical books of the Old Testament,” says the encyclopedia.

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