Titus Flavius Josephus (referred to most frequently as just “Josephus”) is an author frequently cited and discussed in terms of New Testament history even though he never appears in its pages. His Jewish name is Joseph ben Matityahu, and he lived from 30 CE until around 100 CE. He came from a wealthy priestly family. Soon after the Jewish revolt against the Romans began Josephus was made administrator over Galilee; he fought against Vespasian and the Roman army under his command in 66-67 CE. Josephus was taken alive after the capture of Jotapata; he believed that God revealed to him that Vespasian would become Caesar, God was punishing the Jewish people and giving Romans the honor, and he would tell of what was to come. When Vespasian was made Caesar, he gave Josephus freedom and Roman citizenship, and Josephus took on the praenomen and nomen Titus Flavius in honor of Vespasian’s family. Josephus remained with the Roman army throughout the First Jewish War and appealed to his fellow Jewish people to surrender to the Romans. After the war Josephus received imperial patronage, giving him the time and freedom to write his many books to explain the nature and behavior of the Jewish people to the Roman world.
Josephus’ primary works are the The Jewish War (War), written around 75, and the Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquities), written around 94. The Jewish War speaks of the time between Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Jewish revolt but primarily describes the events of the First Jewish War (66-70). The Antiquities of the Jews tells the story of history from a Jewish perspective from creation until the First Jewish War to explain this history for a Greco-Roman audience. Toward the end of his life he also wrote Against Apion, a defense of the Jewish way of life and belief system, and The Life of Flavius Josephus, his autobiography in which he attempts to defend his defection to the Romans.
Josephus is frequently cited and discussed because his writings attest to the background and some of the events of the New Testament. Although Josephus mostly re-tells the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and many apocryphal historical texts in the Antiquities, much of what he has to say about the Hasmoneans, the house of Herod, and first century Judea has historical significance and is difficult to find elsewhere. We learn of Herod the Great’s reign and his cruelty from Josephus (Matthew 2:1-23, Antiquities 14.8-17.8, War 1.8-33). He also attests to John the Baptist’s imprisonment and execution (Matthew 11:1-2, 14:1-12, Antiquities 18.5.2) Josephus explains the distinctive ideas and practices of the Jewish sects of his day, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and particularly the Essenes, in terms of philosophical schools (War 2.8.2-14). Pilate’s cruelty is well-documented by Josephus (Matthew 27:1-24, Antiquities 18.3-4). Josephus spoke of Herod Agrippa I and II, Felix, and Festus, giving us further insight into these characters seen in the book of Acts (Acts 12:20-23, 23:23-26:32, Antiquities 19-20, War 2.11-15). Josephus unwittingly provided the necessary proof and demonstration of the fulfillment of all Jesus spoke against Jerusalem and the Temple by writing his account of the First Jewish War (Matthew 24:1-36/Mark 13:1-21/Luke 21:7-36, Matthew 23:37-39/Luke 19:41-42, War 2.17-7.1). Josephus recounted his shameful trial and execution of James the Just, the brother of the Lord Jesus and author of the letter of James (ca. 63 CE; Antiquities 20.9.1).
Yet Josephus is most famous for speaking of Jesus in Antiquities 18.3.3:
Now 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 [the] 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.
The authenticity of this passage, sometimes called the Testimonium Flavianum, is highly disputed. All extant manuscripts include this section, but many find it suspect because of its claim that Jesus is the Christ, a confession not otherwise seen or evident in Josephus. Therefore, some believe this passage to be a complete interpretation while many others believe that Josephus indeed mentioned Jesus’ execution but a later Christian scribe expanded the reference. The Testimonium is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History in the early fourth century, and Origen may have known of it in the third century. Nevertheless, even if there were some later expansion of the Testimonium, Josephus still most likely makes some mention of Jesus, His execution by Pilate, and the existence of Christians, and thus represents one of the earliest non-Christian witnesses to the story of Jesus and the Christians.
Josephus’ fellow Jews considered him a traitor for not dying at Jotapata and defecting to the Romans, and yet he still remained a stranger among the Romans of his day. His writings maintain much bias and he is frequently attempting to justify himself. Nevertheless, Josephus’ telling of the first century and the end of Second Temple Judaism is the account that has been preserved to this day. Josephus is not inspired nor ought to be considered part of the New Testament, his witness to Jesus, other figures in the New Testament, and the background to not only the first century but Second Temple Judaism in general is of great benefit to our understanding.
Ethan R. Longhenry