By Kyle Larson
Flavius Josephus was a well-known Jewish historian of the first century AD. He is remembered for his history of the Jewish people and a book about their struggle to free the land from Roman rule in the mid first century. He is also remembered for defecting to the Romans after a failed military campaign against them resulted in his surrender. At the time, many Jews called derided him as conceited and a traitor. Fortunately, history allows us a much more balanced picture of this historical figure.
Flavius Joesphus was born Joseph ben Matityaho in Jerusalem into a family in the line of the high priest; His mother’s heritage linked directly to the Maccabean dynasty. At a young age, he showed a thirst for knowledge; to know more about his Jewish heritage. As he notes, many of the Jewish Priests came to him while still a boy to ask him questions about the Jewish faith.
At 16, he became a Pharisee. Pharisees were a Jewish group that adhered very strictly to the written law of Moses as well as to the great body of oral tradition that had grown up around the written law. In 63 AD, at the of 26, he sailed to Rome to ask for the release of some Jewish Priests. The priests had apparently risen up in rebellion against Roman authority, had been captured, and were now in Rome as prisoners. Josephus ultimately gained the release of these Priests, and in the process, became good friends with one of the mistresses of Nero.
After returning to Judea from Rome, he found Judea on the brink of revolt against its Roman task masters. He tried to reason with some of the Jewish leaders trying to convince them that it was “suicide” to revolt against Rome. Rome had far superior military forces. His pleadings failed to convince any of the Jewish leaders.
Over the course of time, because of his eminence in the Jewish community, he was called into military service on behalf of the Jewish rebels against Rome in the siege of Gamala. Even at this point, he still tried to convince the Jewish rebels to lay down their arms against Rome. Josephus only went through the motions of supporting the Jewish rebels against Rome.
Later, at the siege of Jotapata, an overwhelming Roman force had Josephus and a number of other rebel leaders backed into a corner; There was no way out. In desperation, they entered into a suicide pact similar to that at Masada. However. Josephus was able to cunningly weasel out of the pact so that, in the end, all the other Jewish leaders committed suicide while he cheated death by suicide.
Ultimately, Josephus surrendered to the Romans and became a slave of the Roman general. He was in their service as translator. At the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus tried again to urge the rebels to lay down their arms. They would not and, as a result, Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple were destroyed. The city was sacked and the temple set on fire.
During the long siege, Josephus became good friends with Titus, the Roman commander against the Jewish rebellion. Fortunately for Josephus, Titus later became Emperor of Rome. After the rebellion, Josephus returned to Rome with Titus where he became the official historian of the rebellion.
Josephus, in his book Antiquities of the Jews, which gives a historical account of the Jewish people, mentions Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ half brother James. The original quote speaking of Jesus, strangely enough, made it sound as if Josephus was a Christian. This was not the case. Josephus was a Jew. The passage was the subject of much controversy for centuries. Comparing Greek and Latin texts, it appeared that some Christian interpolation had occurred during the second century AD, but no scholar could say how it was altered or by whom.
The answer came in 1971. A Jewish scholar in Jerusalem found a 10th century Arabic version of Josephus’ work translated by Christians living in Arab lands. He also found an 11th century Syraic copy. Comparing the versions together, the interpolation could be removed and the original passage from the point of view of Jewish historian came to light:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But 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.”
In this much more historically accurate version, Josephus is basically reporting historical facts. He is not trying to get his fellow Jews to believe that Jesus is the Messiah which he himself did not believe. It’s a straight forward historical report which includes his neutral reporting that the disciples reported that Jesus appeared to them. Josephus says Jesus was a wise man and seriously wonders whether or not Jesus was the messiah, not that Jesus WAS the messiah.
This Arabic translation of Josephus’ “Jesus passage” is strong evidence that Jesus really existed and that the gospel narratives are correct.