What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The Jewish historian Josephus had a bit to say about the nature of historiography, and why he believed his historical writings were more truthful than those of Greek historians. His criticisms of Greek histories have some interest when compared with modern questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels. . . .

The problem with oral tradition

Josephus commented on the time gap between the Trojan war and the time when the written record of it first appeared. The only link between the event of war and the time of the first written record about the war was oral tradition, and this, Josephus believed, made a truly accurate written account impossible:

their memory was preserved in songs, and they were put together afterward, and that this is the reason of such a number of variations as are found in them.

So maybe Josephus would have criticized the variations in the Gospel accounts as being unreliable history because of the variations arising through oral traditions before the time they were penned.

Contradictions are shameless

Nay, who is there that cannot easily gather from the Greek writers themselves, that they knew but little on any good foundation when they set to write, but rather wrote their histories from their own conjectures? Accordingly, they confute one another in their own books to purpose, and are not ashamed. to give us the most contradictory accounts of the same things.

The evidence that historians are fabricating stories? They contradict one another. Presumably many fundamentalists agree, and perform quite amazing feats of fatuous intellectual ingenuity to “prove” there are no contradictions among the Gospels. These would agree with Josephus when he says that “true history” cannot consist of different accounts of the same things:

And indeed these do what is of all things the most contrary to true history; for it is the great character of true history that all concerned therein both speak and write the same things; while these men, by writing differently about the same things, think they shall be believed to write with the greatest regard to truth.

Inconsistent genealogies

The contradictory genealogies of Matthew and Luke are well known. The same was found among Greek histories and Josephus was not impressed:

what a great disagreement there is between Hellanicus and Acusilaus about their genealogies

I wonder if the Greeks rationalized their conflicting genealogies by arguing that they merely followed different branches of the one family tree, or that textual obscurities indicated that one genealogy was really for a mother and another for a father of the subject.

When the first written records are late

Most texts speak of the Gospels being written up to a generation and more after Jesus. The reason very cited is that the early believers were supposed to have expected the imminent return of Jesus and therefore saw no need for writing history about his past life. But Josephus would have found such a fact counted against the accuracy of what was in the Gospels:

For if we remember that in the beginning the Greeks had taken no care to have public records of their several transactions preserved, this must for certain have afforded those that would afterward write about those ancient transactions the opportunity of making mistakes, and the power of making lies also

According to Josephus, only written documentation could safeguard against errors – even outright lies – in historical memories:

There must therefore naturally arise great differences among writers, when they had no original records to lay for their foundation, which might at once inform those who had an inclination to learn, and contradict those that would tell lies.

And indeed these do what is of all things the most contrary to true history; for it is the great character of true history that all concerned therein both speak and write the same things; while these men, by writing differently about the same things, think they shall be believed to write with the greatest regard to truth.

The need for recognized authorities

Recently Bauckham speculated that the apostles were the guardians of the oral tradition about Jesus before it was put into writing. Josephus, however, would not have been impressed. He would have countered that historical reliability can only be assured if such “authoritative guardians” are in fact guarding written — not oral — accounts:

But now as to our forefathers, that they took no less care about writing such records, (for I will not say they took greater care than the others I spoke of,) and that they committed that matter to their high priests and to their prophets, and that these records have been written all along down to our own times with the utmost accuracy

And those authorities must be married according to strict norms

For our forefathers did not only appoint the best of these priests, and those that attended upon the Divine worship, for that design from the beginning, but made provision that the stock of the priests should continue unmixed and pure; for he who is partaker of the priesthood must propagate of a wife of the same nation, without having any regard to money, or any other dignities; but he is to make a scrutiny, and take his wife’s genealogy from the ancient tables, and procure many witnesses to it.

Do persecutions mean a loss of records and historical memories?

Persecutions and ravages of war were no excuse for loss or variations of historical memory:

But if any war falls out, such as have fallen out a great many of them already, when Antiochus Epiphanes made an invasion upon our country, as also when Pompey the Great and Quintilius Varus did so also, and principally in the wars that have happened in our own times, those priests that survive them compose new tables of genealogy out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain; for still they do not admit of those that have been captives, as suspecting that they had conversation with some foreigners. But what is the strongest argument of our exact management in this matter is what I am now going to say, that we have the names of our high priests from father to son set down in our records for the interval of two thousand years; and if any of these have been transgressors of these rules, they are prohibited to present themselves at the altar, or to be partakers of any other of our purifications; and this is justly, or rather necessarily done, because every one is not permitted of his own accord to be a writer, nor is there any disagreement in what is written;

Maybe the Gospel authors were prophets

Josephus did allow for divine inspiration, however. When it came to “histories” of the most ancient times for which there were no surviving witnesses, apparently for narratives about the pre-Flood events, or even stories of Abraham, God could fill a prophet’s imagination with the truth:

they being only prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them of God himself by inspiration;

But this did not apply if the writers had lived in the times of which they wrote:

and others have written what hath happened in their own times, and that in a very distinct manner also.

So prophets did not need any witnesses or traditions or records from which to garner their information. It all came into their heads from God. But if there were any eyewitness accounts available to the gospel authors, then they could not have it as easy as the prophets.

Compare the Old Testament histories

Josephus used the Jewish “Scriptural” writings as an exemplar consistent historical accounts:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another . . . but only twenty-two books

Would Josephus have found the same level of consistency among the Gospels as he saw between Kings and Chronicles? He makes no mention of variant eye-witness accounts.

(The above Josephan extracts are taken from the Whiston translation of Against Apion.)


  • Antonio Jerez
    2008-11-02 06:34:20 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

    Haha…I really liked thid post. Josephus very much reminds me of one of those countless christian apologists who criticize other religion´s holy books without seeing the speck in their own eye.

  • Pingback: Common Sense Atheism » My Top 10 Atheist Blogs

  • 2009-06-15 10:15:16 UTC - 10:15 | Permalink

    Josephus was not a Christian but he wrote that Jesus was the Messiah? Josephus hated anyone who had counter-cultural and apocalyptic tendencies as deserving what they got from Roman authorities, but he said Jesus who disrupted the Temple establishment with violence and opposed the class that Josephus represented and taught an apocalyptic message was a “good man”? Josephus says Jesus had a large following of Greeks but the gospels say Jesus only had a handful of Jewish followers?

    So in what respect can we be confident that Josephus confirms the story of the Gospels?

    Scholars used to pretty much accept that evidence that shows signs of being tampered with by hand of a forger was useless and had no place in court rooms or history discussions. The history of how this view has changed among biblical scholars, despite the evidence right up to the fourth century c.e. pretty much establishing that Josephus wrote not a word about Jesus, is really quite breathtaking and one for the historiographical writings of a future generation.

    I invite you to check out http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/josephus/testimonium-flavianum-josephus-2/

  • John
    2012-03-26 06:45:35 UTC - 06:45 | Permalink

    If the gospels were written sometime after 70 CE, in response to or with awareness of the war with Rome, then Josephus has said what he thinks of the literature like this of his time in the first paragrah of his preface to The Jewish War: “Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it, while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record.”

    Eisenman comments on this passage in a section titled Roman Power and its Effects in JBJ, writing that, “Having said this, [Josephus] then goes on to indulge in the same conduct himself,” and that it “should be obvious to anyone” that the NT also “suffer[s] from these same defects” (xxii). This was because “Roman power … was as elemental as a state of nature, and all movements and individual behavior must be seen in relation to it” (xx).

    The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, do not suffer from this defect, “for the simple reason that they did not go through the editorial process of the Roman Empire. The opposite; they were probably deposited in caves expressly to avoid it” (xxii).

    But the other reasons you point out above are equally as relevant.

    • 2012-03-26 08:26:07 UTC - 08:26 | Permalink

      It’s a long time since I’ve read Eisenmen’s James. How does he address the studies that argue for anti-imperialist motifs in Acts, Mark and Paul?

      • John
        2012-03-26 09:19:04 UTC - 09:19 | Permalink

        I would need some specific examples of anti-imperialist motifs from Acts, Mark and Paul to see what Eisenman may make of them, but he makes a good case that Paul is very pro-Roman (e.g., Romans 13, Php. 4:22) and also a Herodian.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *