Josephus and Jesus
By Paul L. Maier
Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. 100) was a Jewish historian born in Jerusalem four years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in the same city. Because of this proximity to Jesus in terms of time and place, his writings have a near-eyewitness quality as they relate to the entire cultural background of the New Testament era. But their scope is much wider than this, encompassing also the world of the Old Testament. His two greatest works are Jewish Antiquities, unveiling Hebrew history from the Creation to the start of the great war with Rome in A.D. 66, while his Jewish War, though written first, carries the record on to the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Masada in A.D. 73.
Josephus is the most comprehensive primary source on Jewish history that has survived from antiquity, and done so virtually intact despite its voluminous nature (the equivalent of 12 volumes). Because of imperial patronage by the Flavian emperors in Rome —Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian —Josephus was able to generate incredible detail in his records, a luxury denied the Gospel writers. They seem to have been limited to one scroll each since the earliest Christians were not wealthy. Accordingly, Josephus has always been deemed a crucial extrabiblical resource, since his writings not only correlate well with the Old and New Testaments, but often provide additional evidence on such personalities as Herod the Great and his dynasty, John the Baptist, Jesus’ half-brother James, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas and their clan, Pontius Pilate, and others.
Against this background, we should certainly expect that he would refer to Jesus of Nazareth, and he does—twice in fact. In Antiquities 18:63—in the middle of information on Pontius Pilate (A.D., 26-36)—Josephus provides the longest secular reference to Jesus in any first-century source. Later, when he reports events from the administration of the Roman governor Albinus (A.D. 62-64) in Antiquities 20:200, he again mentions Jesus in connection with the death of Jesus’ half-brother, James the Just of Jerusalem. These passages, along with other non-biblical, non-Christian references to Jesus in secular first-century sources—among them Tacitus (Annals 15:44), Suetonius (Claudius 25), and Pliny the Younger (Letter to Trajan)—prove conclusively that any denial of Jesus’ historicity is maundering sensationalism by the uninformed and/or the dishonest.
Because the above references to Jesus are embarrassing to such, they have been attacked for centuries, especially the two Josephus instances, which have provoked a great quantity of scholarly literature. They constitute the largest block of first-century evidence for Jesus outside biblical or Christian sources, and may well be the reason that the vast works of Josephus survived manuscript transmission across the centuries almost intact, when other great works from antiquity were totally lost. Let us examine each, in turn…