Signs in Josephus, Signs in Gospels and Acts

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by Neil Godfrey

Weeden has presented reasons for thinking the story of Jesus, the son of Ananus, that has come to us through Josephus, played a significant part in customizing details of Mark’s gospel of Jesus. Indeed, this entire section of Josephus‘s Wars that cites 8 warning signs of the imminent fall of Jerusalem has several intriguing overlaps with not only Mark’s gospel, but also with distinctive passages in Matthew, Luke and Acts also.

What follows is only for those already willing to be persuaded that Luke-Acts is in part dependent upon the writings of Josephus. I’m not arguing the case in this post, but jotting down first-thoughts on the signs, two in particular, in Josephus and what seems like it might be their resonance in Acts. Notes for casual discussion or later consideration, nothing more yet. The Josephan passages are copied from Chapter 6 of Wars on the ccel site.

Josephus complains that despite all these signs the general public either ignored their import or ignorantly misread them as favourable omens.

Sign of the end #1

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. (Wars, 6:289)

Who can avoid thinking of the star that that stood over the house in Bethlehem and that caused great joy at a new beginning and salvation for Jerusalem?

and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. (Matt. 2:9-10)

Maybe stars with the ability to stand still over narrowly defined geographic locales was a common enough event in olden days for this to be coincidence?

Sign of the end #2

and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. (Wars 6.290)

There are several cases of a divine light shining throughout the gospels and Acts, and in other ancient literature, too. So it possibly caprice that singles out any one, but one in particular heralds a new beginning and salvation for Jerusalem in the ambience of light in the middle of the night:

Now there were in the same country shepherds . . . keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold . . . the glory of the Lord shone around them . . . (Luke 2:8 ff)

Sign of end #3

At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. (Wars, 292)

Can’t beat that for a sign. (But it is testimony from an ancient historian so maybe we should, with Bauckham, be prepared to give it charitable benefit of the doubt until thorough investigation gives legitimate reasons for pause.)

Sign of end #4

Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. (Wars 293-294)

This one quite impressed Josephus enough to for him to write a lot of words about it, and the idea seems to have been a favourite of the author of Acts, too.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out . . . (Acts 5:19)

That night . . . an angel of the Lord stood by [Peter] and a light shone in the prison. . . and his chains fell off his hands . . . When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord . . . (Acts 12:10) (same Greek words or forms of them as in the Josephus passage — unfortunately in Acts the angel prevented the guards from seeing the gate open with the result that they were executed for dereliction of duty.)

Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened . . . (Acts 16:26)

Sign of end #5

a few days after that feast [Passover], . . . a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. (Wars 296-298 )

A few weeks after Passover, . . .

while they watched, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly towards heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel . . . (Acts 1:9-10)

he . . . gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56)

Sign of end #6

Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple,] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.” (Wars 299)

At Pentecost the disciples had all come together into one place (1:13 suggests it was an upper room of a house where they habitually prayed):

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon [Greek=’settled down’] each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:1-6)

  • At the Feast of Pentecost
  • priests and disciples
  • come together into the one place
  • when a great supernatural noise was heard
  • like a great crowd of voices or like a loudly rushing wind
  • one noise said: let us leave; the other ushered in a spirit that rested in their places on the disciples
  • one voice supernaturally spoke like a large crowd; the spirit caused miraculous speaking by a crowded room full of disciples (120 in all, see 1:15)
  • the noise of destruction said called on all to leave Jerusalem; the noise of salvation brought all Jews to the place of the disciples in Jerusalem.

Sign of end #7

This is the famous passage about Jesus son of Ananus. See my earlier post and link for details and quotation of the passage.

While many features can be teased out that find their reflections in the Jesus of the gospels, there is in addition something about the more overt details and structure of the passage that echoes the first chapters of the narrative of Acts.

Check the above link for the full passage of Josephus in translations.

  • Jesus, the son of Ananus, was a country yokel, a private (idiotes) person — but one who spoke out boldly without any fear (Wars 300)
  • Peter and John were uneducated and private (idiotes) persons — but they spoke out boldly without fear of punishment (Acts 4:13)
  • Jesus of Ananus began his preaching at a time of great peace and prosperity for Jerusalem, several years before the war began (Wars 300)
  • Peter and John began their preaching at a time of utopian peace with all goods in common for not only Jerusalem but especially the church some years before the war. (Acts 2:46-47; 4:32-34)
  • Jesus of Ananus was soon preaching in the temple (Wars 300)
  • Peter and John soon began to preach in the temple (Acts 3:1)
  • Jesus of Ananus began preaching a message of judgment against Jerusalem, the temple, the brides and bridegrooms and the whole people (Wars 301)
  • Peter and John began preaching a message of doom on all Israel unless the people repented (Acts 2, 3)
  • Jesus of Ananus cried out day and night (Wars 301)
  • Peter and John gave themselves continually to prayer and preaching (Acts 6:4)
  • Eminent citizens were indignant at the preaching of Jesus of Ananus and chastised him with a whipping (Wars 302)
  • Leaders were disturbed over the preaching of Peter and John and manhandled them into custody and severely threatened them (Acts 4)
  • But the treatment did not diminish Jesus’ courage to continue his message (Wars 302)
  • Peter and John responded by declaring they would continue to preach as before (Acts 4:19-20)
  • Rulers thought him possessed with some spirit and brought him to the Roman procurator and had him whipped (Wars 303-304)
  • Rulers were furious with Peter and John, unable to deny they their miracles, and arrested them with the intent to kill them, but in deference to their most highly respected councilor in the law they had them beaten. (Acts 5:17-44)
  • The ruler dismissed Jesus as harmless (Wars 305)
  • The rulers dismissed Peter and John on advice they were harmless if alone (Acts 5:38 )
  • Yet Jesus continued crying out his same message as before (Wars 305)
  • Yet Peter and John continued preaching as before (Acts 5:42)
  • His final and unceasing message was against the Jerusalem, the people and the temple (Wars 309)
  • Steven’s final and unceasing message was against the people and implicitly against their temple and nation (Acts 6:10-7:53)
  • At his final preaching Jesus of Ananus was killed by a catapulted stone from outside the city (Wars 309)
  • At his final preaching Steven was killed by stoning outside the city (Acts 7:58 )
  • Jesus of Ananus was killed as he was speaking (Wars 309)
  • Steven was dragged out and killed as he was speaking (Acts 7:57-59)
  • Jesus of Ananus never wished harm on those who were beating him (Wars 308 )
  • Steven prayed for forgiveness of those who were stoning him (Acts 7:59)
  • The story of Jesus of Ananus concludes with the phrase: and as he was uttering the very same passages he gave up his breath/spirit. (Wars 309)
  • The story of Steven concludes with the phrase: And when he had said this he fell asleep. (Acts 7:60)

Sign of end #8

  • an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” (Wars 312)
  • the preaching of Peter and John was that the prophecy that Jesus would come as he and again return to judge and bless the entire world (Acts 2:21, 36; 3:21-25; 5:30-31)
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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Signs in Josephus, Signs in Gospels and Acts”

  1. Hello,

    I found this post while looking at another on your site. I have to admit that it frightened me a little because I had read a number of Christian sites that tried to use Josephus to validate the gospels. Particularly with the “Pentecost” episode. They say that the voices departing in Josephus was the Holy Ghost leaving the temple and the the story in Acts is that same Holy Ghost descending on the apostles.

    It seems the intent of your article is that some think Luke and Acts were used Josephus to develop their stories. That would make sense. But just to clarify, Josephus was writing about events that happened in the 60s correct, so there would be no true way to tie them to gospel times, correct? But perhaps the gospel writers used his information as a template to develop their stories. Am I on the right track?

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