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Josephus, Paul, and Early Christianity

Josephus is our best source for Jewish life around the time of Jesus. So, why doesn’t he often talk about Christians in Judaea?

F. B. A. Asiedu is the author of Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity (Fortress Academic, 2019).

Who is F. B. A. Asiedu and how did he become interested in history?

Asiedu: I suppose I have always been interested in history, but I am not sure that I imagined myself as a “professional historian,” so to speak. My undergraduate degree was in Engineering from Swarthmore College, a school well-known for its liberal arts curriculum. I ended up eventually at the University of Pennsylvania for graduate studies in the history of Christianity in the ancient and medieval periods.

Much of what I do as is a historian is, first and foremost, for my own education. There is just so much I do not know. Hopefully, some of it will be of some benefit to others, as well.

Introduce Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity, and explain what draws you to the subject.

Asiedu: I could speak for a long time on this. The subtitle gives a clue as to what is fundamentally at issue. How do you read the silences of a historian, especially if that historian is our main witness to the period under consideration and the historian in question also knew that his history was likely to be the only one available to posterity from among his contemporaries?

That is the challenge that Josephus presents. Hence the subtitle: “History and Silence in the First Century.”

The book cover for Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity

Make no mistake: when Josephus was completing his Antiquities of the Jews, his Life, and the Against Apion in Rome in the 90s of the first century, he knew there were no comparable works in existence from any of his contemporaries. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE deprived posterity of most of the records that Josephus knew existed at the time in the archives. He alludes to those archives in his Jewish War which he completed in the 70s in Rome after the war.

Throughout, my focus is on Josephus’s historical silences about what he knew in Roman Judaea and what he knew in Rome, where he lived after the end of the Jewish War well into the end of the first century, during which time he wrote all the works that have defined him as the Jewish historian of Jerusalem and Roman Judaea in the first century.

I am also suggesting that what he does has something to say about Paul and about how we should think about the early Christian movement within Jewish life in the first century. And I gesture in the end that Josephus wished to exclude the followers of Jesus as legitimate members of first century Jewish society.

Who was Josephus?

Asiedu: I should say at the outset that one should not think about Josephus without thinking of his father when it comes to Paul and the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. Josephus was a native of Jerusalem, a priest, the son of a priest named Matthias, who, according to Josephus, was one of the leading men of Jerusalem. That makes Josephus’s father Matthias a contemporary of Saul/Paul. And if we accept what Paul says about himself in Galatians about his life in Jerusalem prior to and immediately after his conversion and call as an apostle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then Matthias almost certainly knew something about Paul before 37 CE when Josephus was born. And most likely, Matthias would have been aware when Paul returned to Jerusalem two decades later in c. 57 CE shortly after writing the Letter to the Romans in Corinth. As it was, Paul got arrested for some disturbances in the Temple precincts (according to Acts). Curiously, Josephus affiliated himself with the Pharisees, ostensibly with his father’s blessing, a year before Paul’s fateful last visit to the city. I have discussed some of the issues entailed here in another volume, Paul and His Letters: Thinking with Josephus.

What kinds of events did Josephus record that are relevant to today’s Christians?

Asiedu: Everything Josephus writes about is relevant to understanding the world of the early Christian movement. It is essential for the historical consciousness of Christians everywhere and at any time that they know the world of Josephus’s writings and how they bear on the texts of the New Testament and early Christian traditions no matter where or when they lived. That most Christians today do not have any acquaintance with Josephus is unfortunate.

How much of our understanding of Jerusalem at the time of Christ do we owe to Josephus?

Asiedu: Most of it. It is simply not possible to overstate the significance of Josephus in this respect. If we did not have Josephus’s writings we would know very little about Roman Judaea in the first century, outside of the New Testament writings and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What are some things about which Josephus is silent?

Asiedu: It is a long list including some of the most important figures and events of the day. Josephus makes his readers aware that he knows of them, but he is dutiful in saying next to nothing about them. He must have had his reasons. I mention a few on pp. 124-125.
I shall mention here three notable figures, two in Roman Judaea, and one in Rome, about whom Josephus says very little:

1. Caiaphas: the longest serving High Priest of the first century.
2. Gamaliel the Elder: the influential leader of the Pharisees in the first century. Martial the poet: the most popular writer in Rome during Josephus’s residence there.

Martial said terrible things about Jews. He also mocked Jews about the destruction of Jerusalem, an event about which Josephus had intimate knowledge. Both Martial and Josephus lived in Rome and were part of a wider literary culture, but Josephus says not a word about Martial.

Why is Josephus’s silence on Paul especially strange?

Asiedu: One most notable moment little commented upon is Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem (c. 57 CE) and the almost certain likelihood that both Josephus and his father were in Jerusalem at the time when Paul was arrested, as Acts tells the story.

What is often not mentioned by New Testament scholars who comment on Romans 15:31, where Paul describes his anxiety about his impending visit to Jerusalem, is that Josephus had entered public life in Jerusalem among the Pharisees shortly before Paul made his fateful last visit. It is, therefore, almost certain that both Josephus and his father knew about Paul’s presence in Jerusalem and what ensued in the Temple precincts, if Acts is to be believed. Even more curious is the fact that in his autobiography Josephus deliberately says nothing about the six-year period covering his first foray into public life, a period that includes the year of Paul’s arrest. It seems as if Josephus did not want his readers to know anything or a whole lot about his activities during that time period.

Is it possible that Paul was less important to those in his time period than he is to Christians today?

Asiedu: Sure, we can always look more important in our own eyes than others see us. We are the principal characters in our own stories. And, certainly, with Paul on a scale that is world defining. It is not impossible that he could get a bit out of sorts in thinking of his own importance when he claims to be the Apostle to the Nations (Gentiles). And yet, there is something to Paul’s claims that remain singular and indisputable.

Consider the following: in all of Jewish history up to the end of the first century, do we have another character from Jerusalem who took a message that was fundamentally Jewish in origin and inspiration to the rest of the world as far as he could, travelling by some estimates about 10,000 miles in the eastern Mediterranean, entreating his various audiences to receive this “good news” he believed would save humanity? Who is that person in Jewish history who did anything like that before the second century of the common era? Where is Paul’s equal?

There is no one in the historical record, no Jew that is, who did what Paul did. We know that. Paul likely also knew this to be the case when he said in his Letter to the Romans that he had proclaimed the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum.

So, even without considering his unique role and impact on the Christian tradition, we must first ask why we do not acknowledge his uniqueness as a Jew of the Second Temple Period. To reiterate: there is simply no one else like him. That is not an opinion. It is a fact. Paul himself did not know of anyone in Jewish history who had done anything like he did. His sense of his uniqueness as the Apostle to the Nations, then, is not from some warped sense of himself or from megalomania.

For comparison: it is estimated that Alexander the Great marched some 22,000 miles with his armies. Paul’s 10,000 miles covered a little less than half of what Alexander did: forty-five percent that is. Then consider the impact that Paul has had. We are living with the effects of both Alexander the Great and Paul to this day. And some might say that the effects of Paul’s mission have had a greater impact on the lives of people and societies worldwide than Alexander, whose impact no doubt was the spread of Greek culture in what became the Hellenistic period in antiquity. Paul did not have nor need an army to do what he did. That is how Paul mattered then and matters now.

Why do you argue that Josephus purposefully omitted reference to Christianity in Rome and Jerusalem?


Asiedu: This is something of a provocation. Obviously, to suggest purposeful omission is to claim to know Josephus’s intentions. This gets very interesting. More so because it is about a historical character who was a historian and about his omissions and silences.
Fortunately for us Josephus has something to say about this. Writing in his Against Apion late in his life, Josephus took issue with the historian Hieronymus of Cardia (in Thrace), a former general in Alexander the Great’s army.

It is a passage that deserves to be read and recalled whenever I raise the issue of Josephus’s silences as a historian.

This is what he says about Hieronymus (Josephus, Against Apion 1.213–218 (LCL 186, 1.23):

“That the omission of some historians to mention our nation was due, not to ignorance, but to envy or some other disingenuous reason, I think I am in a position to prove. Hieronymus, who wrote the history of Alexander’s successors, was a contemporary of Hecataeus, and, owing to his friendship with King Antigonus, became governor of Syria. Yet, whereas Hecataeus devoted a whole book to us, Hieronymus, although he had lived almost within our borders, has nowhere mentioned us in his history. So widely different were the views of these two men. 
One thought us deserving of serious notice; the eyes of the other, through an ill-natured disposition, were totally blind to the truth. However, our antiquity is sufficiently established by the Egyptian, Chaldaean, and Phoenician records, not to mention the numerous Greek historians. In addition to those already cited, Theophilus, Theodotus, Mnaseas, Aristophanes, Hermogenes, Euhemerus, Conon, Zopyrion, and, may be, many more—for my reading has not been exhaustive—have made more than a passing allusion to us. 
The majority of these authors have misrepresented the facts of our primitive history, because they have not read our sacred books; but all concur in testifying to our antiquity, and that is the point with which I am at present concerned. Demetrius Phalereus, the elder Philo, and Eupolemus are exceptional in their approximation to the truth, and [their errors] may be excused on the ground of their inability to follow quite accurately the meaning of our records.” (pp. 66-67)

Josephus maintains that he is able to prove Hieronymus’s intentions. Hieronymus, he insists, had a reason for his silence about the Jews/Judaeans. The silence was deliberate. Hieronymus knew exactly what he was doing. It was not inadvertent. Why, because Hieronymus lived in Syria; he was well-acquainted with the Judaeans. How, then, could he have ignored them completely in his world history?

Josephus, in his case, lived in Jerusalem. He identified himself with the Pharisees during Paul’s lifetime. He relates the murder of James the brother of Jesus in 62 CE in Jerusalem, an event that preceded Josephus’s leadership of a delegation to Rome in 63/64 CE. This means that Josephus knew about the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. That is the first point that should not be missed.

I should add here that Josephus underreports the story about the murder of James in 62 CE. And surprisingly, most New Testament scholars also understate the significance of the event for the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Josephus states summarily that James was murdered together with certain others (of his group).

Much of Josephus’s reportage focuses on the behavior of the High Priest Ananus son of Ananus and of the incoming-governor Albinus and the reaction of the leading men of Jerusalem to the murder of James and the others, while underscoring the situation Herod Agrippa II found himself in under the circumstances.

But consider how such a murder of a group of people in Jerusalem would have been received by people in the city. To prosecute and condemn one man was one thing. To prosecute and execute that man together with his associates was something else. Josephus does not name any of the rest, even though it is almost certain that he knew the names of James’s associates. After all, they had been subjected to a sham judicial proceeding by the Sanhedrin to sanction their deaths.

So, we learn of the name of James, but the rest are consigned to complete anonymity. This was the moment when most of the leaders of the Christ-community in Jerusalem were killed. Josephus knew this when it happened in 62 CE. He was there.

And as it turns out, Josephus also knew about the followers of Jesus in Rome and their destruction under orders from Nero. This too should not be overlooked. This is my second point.

Why do I say this? Josephus was in Rome or its vicinity when Rome was destroyed by fire in July 64 CE, and yet Josephus says not a word about the fire, even though he spends some time defending Nero and absolving him of some his alleged crimes. Josephus was also a friend, and received benefactions from Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina, which he mentions with great satisfaction.

Josephus confesses that he is silent about a lot concerning Nero. The acknowledgement does not absolve him. If anything, they shine a spotlight on the silences, when Tacitus, for example, has no difficulty mentioning the dastardly acts involving the destruction of the Christians of Rome by Nero and his praetorian prefect Tigellinus.

These two events are central to my contention: if Josephus knows about the murder of the putative leader of the Christians in Jerusalem in 62 CE, what proof do we need of Josephus’s knowledge of Christians? What additional proof do we need of his intentions with regards Nero’s destruction of the Christians of Rome, except that, as he claims, he will pass over much relating to Nero.

I push a step further in suggesting that the exclusion of the Christians as an identifiable group in Jerusalem is intended to exclude them from Jewish life. Otherwise, why are they not described as like the Essenes or even the so-called Fourth Philosophy that Josephus mentions in both the Jewish War and the Antiquities. If it is sometimes said that their numbers did not warrant it. Perhaps. Still, whatever their numbers, they were significant enough to be the focus of a plot by the then High Priest Ananus son of Ananus to have James and a group of others killed.

That is how significant they were in Jerusalem.

Then there is King Herod Agrippa II: an important source for the history of Jewish life in the first century. Not only was he the last of the Herodian dynasty to rule in the territories of his great-grandfather Herod the Great, he also knew Josephus. Josephus relates in one instance how Herod Agrippa II mentioned to him that when they should next meet he would inform him about many things that are not widely known (Josephus, Life 366).

I have insisted that Agrippa II could have provided a history of the period that would have given us an alternative to what Josephus presents in his four extant writings. Born in 27 CE, a decade before Josephus, Marcus Julius Agrippa II had the good fortune to be educated in Rome in the household of the Emperor Claudius. He did not return to Judaea until sometime after the death of his father Marcus Julius Agrippa I (44 CE). He was deemed too young. He returned later after his uncle Herod of Chalcis died in 48 CE. His uncle’s territory was ceded to him by the emperor, with additional oversight of the Temple in Jerusalem. For a long time, up to the time of the Jewish revolt, he was able to appoint and depose the High Priest.

The Acts of the Apostles independently attests to Agrippa II’s knowledge of Paul and the earliest followers of Jesus. The author depicts Agrippa II and his sister Berenike in an encounter with Paul in the presence of Festus, the procurator of Judaea.

It is important to underline this as indirect testimony of Josephus’s silence about Paul, since the event that led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment, as recounted by Acts, took place when it is almost certain that Josephus and his father were in Jerusalem. And even if they were not physically present at the time, it is not possible for them as well-connected and well-placed members of the priestly class to have been ignorant about a major disturbance in the Temple precincts that led to an arrest of a previously known resident of the city who was then sent to Caesarea and eventually imprisoned there for two years, before eventually being sent to Rome.

Keep in mind that Josephus himself would follow shortly after in c. 63/64 CE as leader of a delegation appointed by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to go to Rome to secure the release of some priests who had been imprisoned there.

If we think such a silence on Josephus’s part is a strange possibility, let us remember that the Rabbinic tradition preserves at least one instance of a historical erasure that involves Josephus himself.

In the entire extant Rabbinic corpus there is not a single reference to Josephus, so that if one were to rely on that corpus for attestation of major rabbinical predecessors from the first century among the Pharisees, for example, or the Temple priesthood, one would not know that there was a person named Josephus from Jerusalem who wrote major historical works in the first century dealing with Jewish life.

The Rabbinic tradition is as silent about Josephus as Josephus is about Paul.

Why doesn’t Acts mention Josephus?

Asiedu: This is not as simple a question as it sounds. And for the record, there is very little about Acts in my book. But since you ask the question, I shall try to answer it.

Let us start with the chronology of Acts: it takes us from about 30 CE, where the first chapter begins, to 62 CE, where the last chapter ends, with Paul having finished a two-year house arrest in Rome. The geographical sweep is from Jerusalem to Rome. The writer of Acts does not say anything else in addition, nor do we have any reason to believe he wrote anything else relating to the story in Acts that has survived. In this respect, all we can say is that the writer’s testimony ends at 62 CE, whatever else he may have done or not done.

Now it just so happens, as I indicated in my previous answer, that Josephus also has a notice on 62 CE that involves the death of James the brother of Jesus, who plays a role in the story of Acts all the way to the end when Paul is arrested. It appears that the writer of Acts had no knowledge that James was dead when he finished his story. If he knew it and did not include it, it would be quite strange. But even on that count, it is not for the writer of Acts to be queried about whether he knew of Josephus: not on the basis of the text as it stands.

The query is legitimate only if one assumes that the writer lived much longer after the end of Acts, past the Jewish revolt, and then knew of the writings of Josephus. Only then is the question even meaningful.

Now, I know that most New Testament scholars assume that Acts was written in the 80s or later, some preferring the second century even. It is a presumption. There is not a single piece of evidence in the work itself to support that claim. Acts ends at 62 CE. You need other entailments to support a claim that the writer put an end to all his interests and simply ended the work there even though he knew so much more about what had transpired after that to the very people he mentions in the work. I have deliberately excluded arguments based on the supposition that the antecedent Gospel, the Third Gospel, which the writer also composed for Theophilus before he wrote Acts, must have been written after 70 CE when Jerusalem was destroyed.

If the writer knew so much more that had happened after 62 CE and still said nothing in Acts about such things nor wrote any other work in spite of his very long life after 62 CE, then the writer is a very disciplined and somewhat disingenuous and troubled character who suppressed everything he knew about the early Christian movement from 62 to 70 CE and beyond.

And he did all this when he knew also what had happened to the Christians in Rome in 64 CE. That omission alone would put him in very strange company indeed, to say nothing else. This means that, remarkably, the said writer knew he was writing for an audience desperate to know what happened to Paul and the Christians of Rome after the end of Acts, while also stolidly refusing to say anything to them about this.

It is a peculiar way of bearing witness to a movement he was a part of, while also erasing the testimony or record of the demise of the Christians of Rome with whom he had had some interactions when he was with Paul, as he claims in the last chapters of Acts. That is what is entailed in all the scholarly claims that the writer of Acts composed his work in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or even in the second century after he had cribbed some of Josephus’s writings.

Now back to the question: my preliminary response should give indication that while I accept it is a legitimate question, the substance of the question is based on a presumption and a certain indifference to what that presumption entails as regards the historical circumstances of the writer in question.

And here is another thing: consider that Josephus lived most of his life in Jerusalem and Roman Judaea and was not known to the world, according to his own testimony, until he was twenty-six when he led a delegation to Rome.

Presumably, if the writer of Acts had been with Paul in Jerusalem in 57 CE when Paul was arrested, and that same writer was in touch with Paul during his two-year imprisonment in Caesarea Maritima, then travelled with Paul to Rome and spent some time with Paul during his Roman residence, we cannot say that the writer must have known who Josephus was. After all, Josephus entered public life as a nineteen-year-old in 56 CE in Jerusalem. If anything, it is Josephus who might have heard of Paul when he visited Rome in 63/64, assuming Paul and the writer of Acts were still present in the city.

Josephus does not become known to the wider world until after the war in Roman Judaea when he wrote the Jewish War while living in Rome. A work that ends in 62 CE, does not need the writings of Josephus that had not yet been written, unless we insist that the writer of Acts must have lived after Josephus’s writings became known.

And it is this issue that I have already addressed above.

For my part, it does not require that we posit that Josephus must have known the Acts of the Apostles. He did not have to, though it is not impossible that he could have been aware of it. Furthermore, much that is presumed about the dating of Acts depends on the conjured or imagined biography of the author of the work, which has traditionally been ascribed to Luke the physician and companion of Paul mentioned in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and Second Timothy 4:11.

I should like to state here that I have argued elsewhere in my Paul and His Letters: Thinking with Josephus (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books / Fortress Academic 2019), pp. 329-340, that the writer of Acts was not Luke but Titus the Greek, the friend and co worker of Paul and Barnabas, mentioned in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and the Corinthian correspondence. Titus of Antioch had no need of Josephus for anything he wrote in Acts. He lived a good part of the story he wrote in Acts.

What would you most want to ask Josephus if you could go back in time?

Asiedu: Where exactly was Josephus and where was his father in the years between 57 and 60 CE, during which Paul travelled to Jerusalem, got arrested, and was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years. And why does he not say a word about the Fire of Rome in 64 CE?

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Josephus, Paul, and Early Christianity”

Please can you confirm that Josephus recorded the deaths of any of the Apostles, and did he inform the first people who published the Bible ?

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