The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus was born in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion of Christ and wrote towards the end of the first century. In addition to writing on Noah’s Ark and Lot’s wife, he also wrote on many other topics, including Herod and how vicious he was, for he had his horsemen kill three thousand Jews on the Passover once (Antiquities Book 17 Chapter 9). In addition, Josephus records a slaughter of almost 10,000 Jews during Pentecost by the Romans (Antiquities Book 17 Chapter 10). He gives several descriptions of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and writes of the Jews being banished from Rome by the wickedness of four men under Tiberius Caesar.
Josephus also wrote on topics like John the Baptist, Jesus, scourging, crucifixion, and James the brother of Jesus.
John the Baptist
About John the Baptist, Josephus writes:
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, who 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 putting away [or 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 greatly moved [or pleased] 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 anything 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 should 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 against him.
Here, Josephus confirms John the Baptist, that he baptized people, that many came to hear him and were moved by his words, that Herod arrested him and put him to death.
Now, this brings up an interesting question on how the Gospel writers might have more information regarding the death of John the Baptist than Josephus did. For that, we turn to an undesigned coincidence. In Luke 8:2-3, there is a list of women who were helping Jesus by providing provisions for him and the disciples, and among that list is one “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward”. So among the women who were helping Jesus was the wife of one of Herod’s servants, thus giving the disciples information directly from Herod’s court.
Regarding Jesus, Josephus writes this:
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 principle 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 concering him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18: 63-64
Admittedly, scholars now consider this to be not what Josephus originally wrote. What I have emphasized is what scholars question.
Jonathon Morrow sums it up in this great article as well as what we can learn from it:
The problem is that a Jewish person would never say some of those things about Jesus. As historian Paul Maier observes, “no Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without having converted to Christianity.” In addition the early Church father Origen believed that Josephus was never converted.
So was the whole thing a forgery invented by Christians? No, that would be an overreaction to what the evidence actually reveals. The claims in this passage will need to be toned down some; but not thrown out…
As scholars have thought about this over the years, the picture has become clearer. Especially helpful is a passage of a 10th century Arabic manuscript of Josephus that was cited by historian Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1972:
“At this time there was a 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.” (10th Century Arabic Text)
You can already see how this passage is more neutral concerning Jesus because it does not contain some of the disputed parts mentioned above. But it still tells us quite a bit about Jesus. A reading like this is very likely close to the original Josephus penned.
Here are some of the important facts we discover about Jesus here:
- Jesus was a wise and virtuous man with a significant following of Jewish and non-Jewish disciples.
- He was crucified under Pilate.
- There were reports that he appeared to witnesses following his resurrection.
- Some were claiming that he was the Messiah that the Jewish prophets had predicted.
In regards to scourging, Josephus records this:
Hereupon our rulers supposing, as the case proved to be, that this was a sort of divine fury in the man, brought him to the Roman procurator; where he was whipped till his bones were laid bare;
The War of the Jews 303-304
The Roman scourging was so brutal that it could expose bones.
In regards to crucifixion, he writes this:
and when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealious, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified; and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hand, while the third recovered.
The Life of Flavius Josephus 420-421
Three of Josephus’ friends were crucified, taken down, and given the best medical care available at that time, and yet 2 of them still died.
The crucifixion alone was enough to kill a man, yet Jesus was both whipped and then crucified.
James the brother of Jesus
Josephus also wrote about James, the brother of Jesus:
when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
Antiquities of the Jews 20.200
Here Josephus confirms James being the brother of Jesus, that Jesus was called the Christ, and that James was martyred by stoning.
Another thing to consider is that Josephus is but one of three Jewish hostile ancient non-biblical accounts regarding Jesus that confirms accounts in the Gospels (as well as 8 hostile non-biblical pagan accounts.)