Episode 21 - Early Non-Christian Sources: Josephus
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
One of the main requests skeptics make when discussing matters of religious history, is for the Christian to present non-Christian writings that support their beliefs. In this episode we go into some of the reasons behind this approach, and then we dive into our first non-Christian historian during the time of Jesus: Josephus. This first century Jewish historian has a lot of controversy surrounding his writings, and we go into the reasons for that, as well as what we can still learn from what he wrote.
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Many episodes ago, we looked at the reasons to think the New Testament is reliable, and then in the past few episodes we looked at the arguments against the New Testament, to see if it stood up against criticisms. However, even if you can show the New Testament is a historically trustworthy document, you will still likely run into people that don’t care, and instead, they want to hear about historical information about Jesus from outside of the New Testament. For the next couple of episodes of the podcast, we’ll be looking into a few very early sources of historical information, that are not within the Bible. For today’s episode, we’ll be focusing on Josephus.
But before we dive into the non-Christian sources that we can glean some biblical information from, I first want to deal with a complaint that comes up, which relates to this topic. While it’s not the most academic argument, there is a complaint against the historical nature of the claims made in the New Testament, based on the fact that we have so little information regarding Jesus, and the other figures and events found within Scripture. For example, in the film Zeitgeist, there is a part where the narrator is trying to make an argument that there are literally no non-Christian sources that refer to biblical events. He makes this argument by giving a list of many different writers during the time of Jesus, and claiming that all of these writers should have mentioned Jesus, and yet failed to do so. While it’s just plain false that no non-Christian writers mentioned Jesus, this sort of claim is also problematic because it’s what’s called “an argument from silence”, which is actually a fallacious way to reason. Basically, you can’t argue against the truth of a claim simply because there isn’t enough data. At best, you can be skeptical. However, there’s an even worse problem than this, which requires that we look at the actual historians that people say “should” have mentioned Jesus.
In the film Zeitgeist, the narrator doesn’t say all of the writers by name, simply because there’s just so many that he lists. Instead, he throws a massive list on the screen, that scrolls quickly through these many names, giving the overwhelming feeling of defeat towards the Christian, because there’s just so many writers that should have mentioned Jesus, and yet did not. The implication given by the narrator is that, the people in this list were first century historians, and if Jesus is a major historical figure, then He should have made it into these documents. The list contains over 20 names, but we’ll just cover a few.
The best example in this list of someone who perhaps should have mentioned Jesus is Philo Judaeus, who wrote right around the time after Jesus’ crucifixion, and who was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, meaning, he was trying to fuse Greek philosophy with Judaism. Firstly, we should note that he died about 50ad, which is a good bit too early for him to really see Christianity rise to any kind of prominence that would warrant mention in his work. Secondly, while he was a historian during the time of Jesus, his main goal was Roman history, and making the Jewish religion more Greek. If anything, Jesus would have been a deterrent to his goals, and mentioning Jesus would have distracted his audience from his purpose. So while we wouldn’t be surprised if Philo did mention Jesus, the fact that he didn’t should be equally unsurprising, because it would have detracted from his overall purpose, and because he died too early to really see Christianity become very widespread.
Dio Chrysostom is another one of the names given. He was a Greek orator, writer, philosopher, and historian, who died in 112ad. Perhaps he should have mentioned Jesus, and actually, perhaps he did! We just plain don’t know, because none of his historical works have survived. So why is he being mentioned as someone who should have mentioned Jesus, but didn’t, if we don’t even have access to his writings?
Next, Quintus Curtius wrote between 41 and 54 ad, and was a Roman historian. The only work we have of his is a biography of Alexander the Great in Latin. Now, while this is a first century historian, why would we expect him to mention Jesus when he’s writing a biography of Alexander the Great? It just doesn’t fit, and we shouldn’t expect him to mention Jesus; in fact, it would be incredibly odd if, while in the middle of writing about Alexander’s great military conquests, he happened so say, “oh and by the way, a few hundred years later there was a guy named Jesus”.
Another example is Columella, who died in 70ad. He was a Roman who was in the army, and then became a farmer, and wrote about Roman agriculture and trees. Now I understand that this is a person in the first century that wrote, but why in the world would we think some random Roman, who didn’t even live in or care about Israel, would write about Jesus? Even worse, why would an agriculturalist feel the need to write about anything religious, or even historical? Can we really imagine Columella writing about the soil in the area, and how it affects vegetation, and then haphazardly throwing in a sentence about Jesus? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Probably the worst example in this list of people who “should have” mentioned Jesus is Livy, who was born in 59bc, and died in 17ad. He wrote a history of Rome which went from 753bc to his own life. Now just in what I’ve said about him in this brief moment, can you see why I would say he’s the worst example? It’s because he died in 17ad! This was over a decade before Jesus even started His ministry! Why in the world would Livy write about some random Jew who hadn’t even done anything yet?
I won’t bore you by going into the details for every single person on the list, but for the majority of them, the main issues are that they’re Roman and had nothing to do with the Jews or Israel, and they usually write on things that are completely unrelated to Jesus, or even history or religion in general. Also, we don’t really have that many documents from this time period. When someone says there should be more about Jesus, that’s kind of a strange thing to say, considering Jesus was a minor religious figure in a land that was practically insignificant on the grander scale. The fact that we actually have four biographies on Jesus in the New Testament is incredibly remarkable. When someone says “look at all these other writers that should have mentioned Jesus!” We first of all can say that these writers shouldn’t have mentioned Jesus. Secondly, we can point to the writings of the New Testament. But thirdly, and on the topic of today’s podcast, there actually are quite a few non-Christians that give us information about Jesus and Christianity as well.
If you look on History.com, it says that evidence outside of the New Testament is limited. Personally, I consider this a pretty silly thing for them to say. Firstly, the fact that only documents outside the New Testament are allowed to be part of the conversation is a huge limiting factor. It’s like saying, “outside of our main sources, there’s not much data on Abraham Lincoln,” yes, obviously if you take away the best sources, you aren’t left with nearly as much. However, it’s silly for another reason. There are sources outside of the New Testament that refer to Jesus. Is it limited? Well, we’re talking about ancient history, from two thousand years ago. If we have ANY historical data on someone who wasn’t a major political figure, it’s impressive. People today tend to treat ancient historical documentation the same way they would modern news, where they expect there to be many resources giving extensive details. However, the fact of the matter is, we don’t have that much writing at all from the ancient past. To say the major bodies of work, like the New Testament books, aren’t allowed to be part of the conversation is just blatant confirmation bias. To then have multiple early attestations in historical works, and still call them “limited” is again, just so obviously biased that it’s embarrassing. Realistically, we have a wealth of historical information in the New Testament. Even if a person isn’t a Christian, and they leave behind all thoughts of inspiration, the Bible is still a highly accurate historical document that can tell us many things about what happened in the ancient past. To leave it out is just biased. All that said, there is still quite a bit of ancient information to go through that exists outside the New Testament, and wasn’t even written by Christians! So let’s look at a few of these cases.
If you’ve ever looked into historical sources for Jesus outside the New Testament, you will certainly be aware of the first we’ll look at; Josephus. Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian during the first century, so he’s exactly the sort of person we would expect to include Jesus in his historical works, and what do you know, he does, twice in fact. Now that said, many critics will be very quick to point out that we do have a serious problem with Josephus, and don’t worry, we’ll look at later. To start, Josephus was a Jew, and was born in 37ad, which was just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which likely happened in 33ad. He wrote a massive historical work called “The Antiquities of the Jews”, and in it, there are two references to Jesus, and a reference to John the Baptist. First we’ll take a look at the passage about John the Baptist. When studying the historical Jesus, as some in academia call it, historians typically begin the investigation of trying to decide what in the Bible is “really” true by starting with two elements: Jesus’ crucifixion, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The passage we are about to read from Josephus is one of the reasons for this. Here we have a lengthy portion regarding the historical details about John the Baptist, found in “The Antiquities of the Jews”, Book 18, Chapter 5, verse 2, which reads:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the the remission of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.
Here, we have a very early, non-Christian source, which confirms for us many details found in the New Testament. Herod had John the Baptist executed, without just cause, because he feared both the conviction of his own sin, and the power over the people that John had. Also, John was baptizing people in water for their sins, that many people gathered to hear his teaching, and that he taught them to leave behind their sinful ways.
For our next two sections from Josephus, we find the two cases where Jesus is mentioned. This is found in “The Antiquities of the Jews”, book 20, chapter 9, verse 1. It’s giving the story of Ananus, the high priest, and says:
"… he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."
In this passage we have a reference to Jesus, the fact that He was called the Christ, at least by some people, and that He had a brother named James, who was arrested and executed by stoning. Now with just this passage alone, we can confirm a few historical details about Jesus.
The next passage in Josephus that mentions Jesus gives us even more details, but it also poses a problem. This passage is also referred to as the “Testimonium Flavianum”, and is found in “Antiquities of the Jews”, Book 18, Chapter 3, verse 3, which reads:
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.
Now while the Christians listening to this podcast might be praising God for such an amazing source of history regarding Jesus outside the New Testament, there is a major problem with this passage, namely, Josephus was not a Christian, and yet, this passage sounds very, very Christian. Basically all historians admit that this passage is what’s called a “Christian interpolation”, meaning, Christians edited or added to the work. Therefore, this passage isn’t a legitimate piece of writing from Josephus. To show this, we can think earlier where it refers to James as being the brother of Jesus, “who was called the Christ”. Some translations translate that as “the so-called Christ”. Regardless, in that passage about James that references Jesus, the attitude in it is not terribly respectful of Jesus, which is exactly what we would expect from a Jew who did not affirm Christianity. When we read this Testimonium Flavianum, we are struck by numerous aspects that seem very Christian, like the idea that Jesus was “more than a man”, that he did “wonderful works”, that He was the Christ, or messiah, that Jesus appeared to everyone again after being crucified, referring to the resurrection, and that this answered prophecy. This is very clearly not the sort of thing anyone but a Christian would write, and Josephus was not a Christian.
Now with this in mind, many people jump on the writing of Josephus, and completely dismiss it as having zero importance to the historicity of the New Testament and Jesus. However, there are still things we can learn here. First of all, just because we can see a case of editing in a document does not mean you toss out the entire document. The first two passages we looked at in Josephus have no signs of interpolation, and look to be quite authentic, so we can still appreciate that portion of Josephus’ writings, and it does give us some historical information. Secondly, even though this passage is clearly a case of Christian interpolation, we do have a very early translation of this in the Arabic language, which doesn’t have the Christian interpolation. In other words, the original document, prior to being corrupted, was translated into Arabic, and we have that document, so we can see what the original would have looked like. This translation was written by Agapius, and it reads:
"...at this time there was wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."
The very interesting thing here is, we have many of the same elements, it’s just that it isn’t embellished to affirm all of the details as being true. What we have is all the same sorts of claims, but an air of skepticism surrounding it all, because Josephus wasn’t a Christian. This translation has no markings of interpolation, and seems to be a legitimate translation of what the original writing really was. The passage refers to Jesus being moral, that He had many followers who were both Jews, and from other nations, that He was crucified under Pilate, and that His followers “reported” that Jesus was resurrected. It then says, again with an attitude of doubt, that Jesus might have perhaps actually been the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. Here, we find something that does align with our understanding of Josephus, and how a first century Jew would have seen Jesus. This Arabic translation ends up being an important resource, considering it’s a very early non-Christian writing that even mentions the resurrection of Jesus as being an aspect of Christianity.
So if we gather together all the bits of data we have, just from Josephus alone, we end up being able to see a lot of what the New Testament says, all from a first century, non-Christian writer, who was skeptical of Christianity. We can confirm that John the Baptist was baptizing people with water for the remission of sins, teaching people to turn away from their wicked ways, and ended up being unjustly executed by Herod. We also see that Jesus was a real historical figure, he had a brother named James, that Jesus was called the Christ, or Messiah, that He had followers among the Jews, and from other nations, that He was virtuous, was crucified by Pilate, and that after His crucifixion, His followers claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, being alive, three days after His execution. We also see that, even though Josephus was doubtful, it was still recognized that Jesus quite possibly fulfilled the prophecies found in the Torah relating to the coming Messiah. We get all of this from a non-Christian historian writing during the same century as Jesus, even if we leave out all the obvious Christian edits and additions. As I said when I started this episode, to claim that this is “limited” historical information is a bit silly, especially when we consider how little ancient writing we have in general, and how much we have here.
For this episode, I found that there was such a wealth of information to go into regarding Josephus, that we didn’t have time for anyone else. For the next episode, we’ll be going into the other early non-Christian historical writings we have that confirm some of what we find in the New Testament. So I hope you’ll join me next time, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.