Flavius Josephus

People sometimes ask whether the events recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are mentioned at all elsewhere. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus gives a few details which seem to corroborate the gospels in his "Antiquities of the Jews", book 18.

Josephus was born about AD 37 in a priestly family in Judaea. After studying the teachings of the Sadducees, Essenes and Pharisees, he decided to follow that of the Pharisees. At the age of 26 he was part of a delegation to Rome. In AD 66 he was a leader in a revolt against the Romans. This revolt was crushed by Vespasian, and he was captured. Josephus apparently saved his life by telling Vespasian that he would one day become emperor, and he was freed two years later when this prediction came true. Josephus spent the latter part of his life in Rome, where he wrote his "Antiquities of the Jews", "Jewish War" and other things. Some extracts from the "Antiquities" follow.

1. The Census.
"Antiquities", book 18, chapter 1

"Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other offices, and had passed through all till he became consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great merit, came at this time into Syria with a few others, being sent by Augustus to be a judge of that nation, and to take a valuation of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Cyrenius also came into Judaea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take a valuation of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’ money. But the Jews, although at first they took the report of a taxation very ill, yet left off any further opposition to it, at the persuasion of Joazar, who was high priest, and the son of Boethus. For they listened to Joazar’s words, and gave an account of their estates without any dispute. But one Judas, a Gaulanite, of a city whose name was Gamala, joining himself to Saddue a Pharisee, was eager to draw them into a revolt..."

Josephus goes on to describe how the rebellion was crushed and a famine resulted. Cyrenius is Quirinius in some versions of the Bible, and this passage could be referring to the census mentioned in Luke 2, although it is also possible that the Romans conducted more than one census about this time. Luke also quotes Gamaliel referring to the rebellion of Judas being crushed in Acts 5:37. The massacre of the children perpetrated by Herod in Matthew may have taken place in the midst of this rebellion, and would then have seemed less remarkable.

2. The Life and Death of Jesus.
"Antiquities", book 18, chapter 3

"Now about this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure; and drew over to him many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the information of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at first did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold this and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

Some people object that, since Josephus wasn’t a Christian as far as we know, he couldn’t have written this and it must have been added later by someone else. My copy of "Antiquities" doesn’t make any mention of this passage being unreliable though. At another time Josephus did identify Vespasian as the Jews’ promised ruler, but then he was Vespasian’s prisoner at the time! Josephus' uncritical acceptance of Jesus rising from the dead is less surprising when we remember that he followed the teaching of the Pharisees, who readily acknowledged the possibility of miracles.

3. John the Baptist.
"Antiquities", book 18, chapter 5

"Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a long time. But on his journey to Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother; for this Herod was the son of the high priest Simon's daughter. And he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod's wife, (who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great), and ventured to talk to her of marriage. And as she agreed to his proposal, it was arranged that she should change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome: it was also stipulated that he should divorce Aretas' daughter..."

"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had had him put to death, though he was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as justice towards one another, and piety towards God, and so come to baptism; for baptism would be acceptable to God, if they made use of it, not in order to expiate some sins, but for the purification of the body, provided that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness."

In the gospels Herod has John imprisoned and killed because John criticises his incestuous marriage. Josephus records Herod's marriage and the death of John the Baptist, but does not explicitly make the connection. He gives no details about the execution. (In the gospels Herodias' daughter Salome dances for Herod and is rewarded with John's head on a platter!)