He never met Jesus of Nazareth and he does not appear in the Bible, but the man called Flavius Josephus is vital in understanding early Christianity.
Josephus was an ancient Judean aristocrat who lived from ca. 37 CE to ca. 100 CE (making him a contemporary of Paul and other early Christians). He wrote extensively about Jewish history and himself, and thanks to his meticulous work, we can know a lot about the world in which Jesus lived. When I came across Josephus during research for my graphic novel I became so fascinated that I wanted to make him a character in the story (he plays a major role as priest and military adviser Yosef). He probably was an unpleasant, misogynist, self-righteous opportunist with a lot of blood on his hands. But his life serves as a mirror to explore questions of survival, loyalty and personal integrity—a perfect anti-hero then!
Here are the top 5 reasons you should know about him:
Josephus wrote a gut-wrenching book about the Judeo-Roman war
In 66 CE, the Judeans started an insurgency against the Roman empire that led to a 4 years long war. It ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple — a catastrophic event that put both an end to temple-centered Judaism and the Jerusalem church who was center of early Christian power. This forced Judaism to be reorganized and redefined, paving the way for rabbinic Judaism and proselyte Christianity.
Josephus tells us the whole history of this war, because he wasn’t only an eyewitness but took part as military commander. His book The Judean War became the official Roman account of the events and serves as the main source for researchers to this day. It’s a vivid, often terrifying war story, and worth reading for its eye-opening portrayal of Jesus’ world.
Josephus invented the word “theocracy” (or so he claims…)
After the war, Josephus settled down in Rome and started writing books about Jewish history and thought. Writing in Greek for a Greco-Roman audience, he had to come up with translations of foreign Hebrew concepts. In a short book called Against Apion, he combined theós (=god) and krateín (=to reign) to explain the Judean view of government (Book 2, chapter 17):
Some legislators have permitted their governments to be under monarchies, others put them under oligarchies, and others under a republican form; but our legislator had no regard to any of these forms, but he ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a Theocracy [theokratía], by ascribing the authority and the power to God, and by persuading all the people to have a regard to him…
Josephus’ definition of theocracy differs from our modern use. It’s not a state in which the clergy or a religious organization holds the power (although the Judea he grew up in was exactly that). He rather thinks of theokratía as rule by God through the written Law (torah) whose constant study would translate into people’s practice.
Divine authority above human power is of major concern for Jesus’ contemporaries and his followers. Josephus provides material to think more deeply about how Jesus’ announcement of a “Kingdom of God” can thus be understood.
Josephus corroborates some major Bible characters
Herod the Great. Pontius Pilate. Queen Berenice… many recognize these Biblical names. But it’s thanks to Josephus that we have some background information about these and other key players of Old and New Testament.
In fact, Josephus’ books are treasure troves of geographical, cultural, political and religious information. He was obsessed with details. Researchers can cross-check his data with other records and archaeology to know e.g. the birth and death years of Herod the Great, and then make educated guesses on when Jesus was born. Without Josephus, the historicity of many characters such as John the Baptist or the rebel Theudas would be impossible to confirm. And we can detect errors in the Biblical records such as Luke’s confusion about the “census of Cyrenius”…
All of this gives us a more nuanced picture of the ancient world, reminding us that the Bible stories don’t play in some mythical past but are fixed in specific times and places that can be checked.
Josephus wrote about Jesus and early Christians … or did he?
Among Christians, Josephus is most famous for a short passage in his monumental Judean Antiquities. The so-called Testimonium Flavianum mentions Jesus, and even calls him messiah. For centuries, Christians saw this as a strong extrabiblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. For rabbinic Jews, it was just one more reason to disown Josephus (apart from him collaborating with the Romans). Book 18, chapter 3 reads:
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.
If you think that this sounds too good to be true you’re not alone. Current academic consensus is that Josephus didn’t write the passage verbatim. It was either completely fabricated by Christian writers or at least in parts. However, the Testimonium isn’t the only reference to Jesus in Judean Antiquities. There is another passage which I think is actually more important.
[High Priest 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…
What’s recorded here is the trial and death of “James the Just” (Yaakob), Jesus’ brother, in the year 62 CE. According to Christian records, James led the Jerusalem congregation after Jesus’ death. His reputation as a righteous spiritual leader was impenetrable. Josephus confirms this tradition without a sign of Christian conflation or favoritism. It’s a revealing snapshot into the early Christian movement. The fact that Josephus mentions “Jesus, who was called Christ” in passing probably means that people in his time were more or less familiar with Jesus’ name and sect.
Josephus shows us the complexity of Judeo-Roman life
Like almost nobody else, Josephus embodied the contradictions and depth of living as a Judean in the Roman Empire. Born into the royal bloodline of the Hasmonean dynasty, he grew up in Jerusalem to become part of the priestly elite. Highly educated, the promising young man was sent to Rome as a diplomat in his 20s. Upon his return he found his country in revolutionary turmoil and seized leadership. He became a Galilean warlord, spent time as a prisoner of war in Egypt, collaborated with Rome as a translator and advisor, and finally became a Judean diaspora intellectual in Rome. He was married four times, spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and probably some Latin and wrote an autobiography. In his writings, he paints a rich panorama of antiquity, refering to Britain, Germany, India, Libya, all connected through globalized trade and war. In all of this, he is confronted with the question of what it is to be Judean and Jewish in a multicultural empire, what it means to be loyal and moral.
Surely, his colorful biography can’t be compared to the majority of the rural peasantry of his time, most of whom would never travel beyond provincial borders… Nevertheless, Josephus’ life exemplifies the plasticity of identity within a complex ancient world.
There is a now a new edition of The Judean War, with great maps and illustrations… Josephus Carta’s Illustrated The Jewish War by R. Steven Notley. I think this will be useful this for my next book!