One of the most-quoted resources about the world during Bible times is the first-century historian Josephus. But who was this man, and should we trust what he has to say?
Famed Jewish historian Josephus Flavius was born in Jerusalem in AD 37 or 38, not long after Christ’s crucifixion. The son of a priest, he became a Pharisee, a military commander in the Jewish resistance, and an eyewitness to Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70. Eusebius, the first church historian, calls him “the most famous Jew of his time” and tells of a statue erected in his honor in Rome.
For two millennia Christian scholars have preserved and studied Josephus’s works, especially his account of the Jewish revolt (The Jewish War) and a complete history of God’s people from creation to the first century (Antiquities of the Jews). Pastors often incorporate details from Josephus in their sermons without even realizing they came from him. But should we trust his works?
While every historian is fallible and must be read with care, historians can be very helpful, especially when they report firsthand knowledge. As a teenager, Josephus spent time with various Jewish sects and knew them well. He later observed the Jewish revolt from the front lines. When he was captured, he got to see the other side. In fact, he won the favor of the general, Vespasian, by accurately predicting his rise to the throne of the empire. Josephus ultimately switched sides and received Roman citizenship, even adopting Vespasian’s imperial family name, Flavius. He now had access to the emperor’s libraries, military reports, and court records from Herod and other rulers in Palestine.
The principal value of Josephus’s work lies in his discussion of Jewish history from 100 BC through AD 100. His narrative of this era is strongly supported by numerous authentic sources he gathered and interpreted with skill.
Josephus’s works provide us with valuable details that do not survive in any other records.
Josephus’s works provide us with valuable details that do not survive in any other records. In fact, he provides the most important extrabiblical information on many key political figures, such as Herod the Great, Felix, and Pilate. For instance, most of our knowledge of Herod’s extensive building projects, such as the temple that Christ often visited, comes from Josephus.
His works also provide insight into the inner workings of first-century Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. His description of another sect, the Essenes, helped confirm that they were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also provides gripping details about other first-century events, such as the destruction of the temple (prophesied by Christ in Matthew 24:2) and the Jews’ last-ditch resistance atop Masada.
Yet Josephus was not an eyewitness to most events in his works. His history is only as good as his sources. The early history in The Antiquities of the Jews is far removed from his own personal experience. We can only be sure of the details that coincide with Scripture, but the others are no more trustworthy than the traditions he relied upon.
Though many Jews viewed Josephus as a traitor, he nevertheless remained loyal to his people. The Jewish revolt had caused hard feelings in Rome, and Josephus wanted to change that as a historian and apologist for the Jewish people. While praiseworthy, this bias is cause for caution.
His pro-Jewish sympathies emerge clearly in The Jewish War. That work portrays most Jews as peace-loving citizens. He blames Jewish zealots, whom he calls “bandits” and “brigands,” for the collapse of Jewish society in the first century.
Antiquities, written later, attempts to show the superiority and antiquity of the Jewish culture. To achieve that end, it tends to exaggerate the good qualities and ignore the unflattering failures, such as Aaron’s golden calf, in an effort to promote the Jewish cause.
Historians now generally agree with Harold Attridge that Josephus’s Antiquities were a “propagandistic history.” His “paraphrasing [of] the narratives” of the Old Testament was a “creative adaptation” aimed at presenting Jewish history as “relevant, comprehensible and attractive in a new environment.”1
To read Josephus correctly, we need to keep in mind that he was a product of his times. Readers in first-century Rome had different expectations than we do today. It was common practice for historians to shape or add details to make a good story. Josephus gives a famous account of the last stand of the Jews atop Masada. Instead of surrendering, he says the Jews selected several men to slay the majority and then turn their swords upon themselves. Yet archaeologists have not found the bodies to verify his story.
Also, like other historians of his day, Josephus sometimes invented heroic speeches and put them into the mouths of his subjects, such as the patriotic oratory of Eleazer, the leader of the Jews atop Masada. Since the men who heard Eleazer were slain in the siege, and since Josephus wrote the account from Rome, he cannot possibly have had access to the full speech.
Few ancient historians were careful about numbers and statistics, either. Scholars know that Josephus often errs on the chronologies of first-century events with which he was quite familiar. So be wary of any numbers he gives.
In summary, Josephus is an eminently important and helpful source for gathering details about New Testament times, but Christians should be careful not to read him as an apologist for Christianity or to rely upon him too heavily. Nor should they be ignorant of his bias in favor of Judaism and his willingness to deliberately rewrite Old Testament narratives to provide a more flattering picture of the Jewish heritage.
Josephus shares details about biblical people and places that don’t appear in the Bible. Which of these claims have you heard, without realizing they came from Josephus?