ancienthistory.about.com (Josephus – From William Whiston’s translation of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Public Domain)
By Spencer D Gear
When someone makes this assessment of an historian, his writings are worthy of further pursuit: ‘In spite of his limitations, Josephus conducts us through that strange time and world which was home to Jesus and the Evangelists and so enables us better to hear and see the Word in the world in which it appeared’ (Scott 1992:394).
Who is this Josephus?
Josephus (ca. AD 37-100), a wealthy Jew, attempted to justify Judaism to cultured Romans through his writings (Cairns 1981:46) but he was called ‘a Jewish historian’ who ‘when measured against his own canons of objectivity and truthfulness, often failed to be a good historian’ (Herrick 2015 n. 16). He was ‘a historian writing principally about the Jewish people’ (Herrick 2015).
He also provided the earliest reference to Jesus outside of the New Testament and he also wrote of ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’ (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1).
In the foreword to one edition of Antiquities of the Jews, William Sanford LaSor wrote:
Josephus, or more accurately Joseph ben Matthias, was born the year Gaius acceded to the throne of the Roman Empire, A.D. 37, and died sometime after A.D. 100. He was born of a priestly family and through his Hasmonean mother could boast of royal blood….
In brief we can divide his life into two parts, each about thirty-three years in length: the first half could be described as the life of Joseph ben Matthias, Jewish priest, General, and prisoner; the second half, with some reservations, as the life of Flavius Josephus the Roman citizen and author….
After the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus was given a tract of land near Jerusalem, a number of books, and a chance to retire to a life off quiet contemplation. He chose, to return to Rome with Titus, where he became a client of the Flavian family, received Roman citizenship, and was commissioned to write a history of the Jewish people….
Josephus’ first literary work was the Wars of the Jews, published in the closing years of the reign of Vespasian. Since at that time Josephus was not confident of his ability to write in good Greek style, he composed the work first in Aramaic…. The Wars of the Jews was written under the commission of the Emperor, and can be looked upon as a bit of propaganda, designed to deter others who might have been tempted to revolt (Wars of the Jews III, v, 8). The title, on the analogy of Caesar’s Gallic War, is probably to be understood from the Roman viewpoint: the war against the Jews, rather than the Jewish War against Rome. It is Josephus’ most carefully written work.
His Antiquities of the Jews was published about fifteen years later (A.D. 93 or 94)….
The Life was written … shortly after the year A.D. 100, principally as an apology for his own life, to defend himself against charges made by Justus of Tiberias concerning Josephus’ conduct during the war in Galilee.
Against Apion is an apology for Judaism in which Josephus evaluates the ideals of Hellenism and shows its deficiencies while at the same time showing the excellencies of the Jewish religion (LaSor 1960:VII-IX).
Josephus and Jesus
Of Jesus he wrote:
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 (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3).
This passage is often regarded as containing Christian interpolations, but ‘most scholars agree that this basic information … is most likely a part of the original text. Josephus was not a friend of Christianity, and thus his mention of Christ has more historic value’ (Cairns 1981:46). However, this statement is found in all of the Greek manuscripts from the 11th century and is in Eusebius in a couple of places (Ecclesiastical History 1.11.7 and Demonstratio Evangelica 3.5.124).
I have found Greg Herrick’s article helpful in coming to a better understanding of ‘Josephus’ Writings and Their Relation to the New Testament’ (Herrick 2015).
His view of female witnesses
There is an unusual emphasis in Josephus for the 21st century. He has a major problem with women as witnesses. Josephus, in his major work, Antiquities of the Jews, stated: ‘But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex‘ (4.8.15, emphasis added).
The editor of this edition of Josephus stated after the citation about women, ‘I have never observed elsewhere, that in the Jewish government women were not admitted as legal witnesses in courts of justice. None of our copies of the Pentateuch say a word of it. It is very probable, however, that this was the exposition of the scribes and Pharisees, and the practice of the Jews in the days of Josephus’ (4.8.15, n. 21).
Even though he seems to have stated that Jesus ‘appeared to them alive again the third day’ (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3), with his attitude towards women as witnesses, he would encounter major difficulties with the NT emphasis of the first witnesses of Jesus after his resurrection being women. Matthew 28:1-10 (NIV) gives this description:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.
Imagine it! The greatest event in world history, the physical resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead, was found by two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. These women met the risen Jesus, clasped his feet, worshipped him and went to tell the brothers to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus. That kind of information should blow Josephus’ mind as he was a contemporary with Jesus.
See the article by Ben Witherington, Why Arguments against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical.
The reliability of Josephus
The accuracy of Josephus as a Jewish historian has been questioned because ‘he is self-serving in his accounts, overly gracious and generous in his presentation of the Romans, and molds the facts of Jewish history to suit his own ends. He is notorious for his exaggeration of numbers’. This is seen when his works are examined in parallel and they ‘have unreconcilable variants’ (Scott 1992:393).
However, new data were found in the 1960s with the excavations of Masada and these ‘add credibility to Josephus’ handling of at least the major features of his subjects’ (Scott 1992:393).
Herrick essentially agrees with this assessment:
It is no mystery that many scholars hold that Josephus is woefully inaccurate at times. And, it would appear from the work of Schurer, Broshi, Mason, Mosley and Yamauchi that such a conclusion is fairly warranted. Yet this skepticism does not need to be thorough-going, for there are many places where it appears that he has left for us a solid record of people and events—especially as regards the broad movements in history at this time. These might include facts about the Herodian dynasty, the nature of the Jewish religious sects, Roman rule over Palestine and the fall of Jerusalem. Boshi agrees that in many places Josephus errs, regarding numbers and names, but this is no grounds for dismissing all that he said as without foundation. Once again, the historical trustworthiness of Josephus, is perhaps not a flat declaration, “he is” or “he is not” but rather it proceeds on a case by case basis (Herrick 2015).
Broshi, M 1982. The Credibility of Josephus, Journal of Jewish Studies 33, 379-384 Spring / Autumn. Now available at: http://www.centuryone.com/josephus.html (Accessed 26 September 2015).
Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Herrick, G 2015. Josephus’ Writings and Their Relation to the New Testament. Bible.org (online). Available at: https://bible.org/article/josephus%E2%80%99-writings-and-their-relation-new-testament (Accessed 26 September 2015).
LaSor, W S 1960. Foreword to Josephus: Complete Works 1867, VII-XII. Works tr W Whiston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications.
Mason, S 1992. Josephus and the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Mosley, A W 1965. Historical Reporting and the Ancient World, New Testament Studies, October, 10-26.
Schürer E 1973. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.D. – A.D. 135), 3 vols, rev & ed G Vermes & F Millar. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
Scott, J J 1992. Josephus, in J B Green & S McKnight (eds) & I H Marshall (cons ed), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 391-394. Downers Grove, Illinois / Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.
Yamauchi, E M 1980. Josephus and Scripture, Fides et Historia 13, Fall, 42-63.
 The footnote here stated, ‘A.D. 33, April 3’.
 The footnote at this point was, ‘April 5’.
 The 124 is in the text as (124).
 Here the footnote was: ‘Cf. Scott (1992:393); Schurer, 57, 58. He says, that the War is superior in accuracy to the Antiquities in the recording of details and therefore of greater [historical] value; Broshi (1982:383, 84); Mason (1992: 81, 82); Mosley (1965: 24-26) and Yamauchi (1980:58). [Note: Schurer is possibly referring to Schürer (1973) as in the bibliography on the article about Josephus by Scott (1992:394)].
 The footnote was: Broshi (1982:383, 84). It should be Broshi (1982:383, 384).
Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 November 2015.