Miracles with Multiple Jewish and Roman Eyewitnesses

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by Neil Godfrey

Gillis, Marcel; The Angels of Mons; Atkinson Art Gallery Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-angels-of-mons-65958

If we accept the common dating of Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, around 75 CE, then consider what this means for the historicity of the following events. Apply the reasoning of those who argue for the historicity of New Testament miracles. Josephus declares he is recording events no more than ten years earlier and he speaks of eyewitnesses.

First a star stood over the City, very like a broadsword, and a comet that remained a whole year.

Then before the revolt and the movement to war, while the people were assembling for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the 8th of Xanthicos at three in the morning so bright a light shone round the Altar and the Sanctuary that it might have been midday. This lasted half an hour. The inexperienced took it for a good omen, but the sacred scribes at once gave an interpretation which the event proved right.

During the same feast a cow brought by someone to be sacrificed gave birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple courts,

while at midnight it was observed that the East Gate of the Inner Sanctuary had opened of its own accord – a gate made of bronze and so solid that every evening twenty strong men were required to shut it, fastened with iron-bound bars and secured by bolts which were lowered a long way into a threshold fashioned from a single slab of stone. The temple-guards ran with the news to the Captain, who came up and by a great effort managed to shut it. This like the other seemed to the laity to be the best of omens . . . .

A few days after the Feast, on the 21st of Artemisios, a supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I have to relate would, I suppose, have been dismissed as an invention had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. Before sunset there were seen in the sky over the whole country, chariots and regiments in arms speeding through the clouds and encircling the towns.

Again, at the Feast of Pentecost, when the priests had gone into the Inner Temple at night to perform the usual ceremonies, they declared that they were aware, first of a violent movement and a loud crash, then of a concerted cry: ‘Let us go hence.’

(Josephus, Jewish War, 6)

A star “over a city” is as nonsensical to us as a star positioned over the house where Jesus was found. And comets do not stay around for a full year. But how could Josephus get away with writing such things within ten years of them supposedly happening unless they were true and could not be contradicted by eyewitnesses, both Roman and Jewish?

Josephus further tells us that priests saw and interpreted the signs and priests would hardly lie. They were, after all, attempting to tell the masses that what they had seen should be interpreted as a sign from God carrying a different message.

If the cow giving birth to a lamb had been said to have happened in a cowshed or behind an outhouse then we could dismiss it easily enough. But how could Josephus expect to get away with saying it happened right in the middle of the Temple courts? Surely there were scores of eyewitnesses.

As for the appearance of angelic armies in the sky being confirmed by eyewitnesses, we can well believe it. We know the same type of event was recorded but a mere month after the battle at Mons in 1914: see the Angels of Mons.


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23 thoughts on “Miracles with Multiple Jewish and Roman Eyewitnesses”

    1. The passage is a well-known section of The Jewish War by Josephus. You will find many fundamentalist sites on the web discussing it. Josephus is following a standard trope found in many ancient historical writings — setting aside a passage to list the omens that predicted a great disaster to follow.

      See chapter 5 section 3 of Book 6 of the Jewish War here: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-6.html or https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/war-6.htm or at the Perseus Tufts site: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0148:book=6:section=288

      1. So are we to believe anything he says? He is quoted so often about historical dates why wouldn’t he just repeat something about an occurrence that is just hearsay?

        1. We need (ought) never take any text at face value. Everything needs to be questioned and corroborated. That doesn’t mean we routinely disbelieve anything that can’t be independently corroborated but it does mean we treat it with caution and don’t become too invested in it.

          Josephus was not writing a factual encyclopedic account of events. He had a mix of motives. The more we learn about his circumstances, pressures, interests, etc, the better we can figure out why he writes the things he does. How much is pure entertainment (that was important for ancient “historians”)? How much is directed at teaching some philosophical or religious or moral lesson? Many historians had some axe like that to grind and Josephus was keen to prove that the Jewish god and religion was every bit as worthy, and more, as any other philosophical system of way of life of concept of God. So he sometimes introduced miracles and signs to make his point. I did not quote the sentences of Josephus where he explains the religious significance of those signs and the lessons God was trying to teach through them.

          It helps if we have the time to read a range of historical works by historians of that era in order to get some feel for how they wrote, the sorts of things they introduced into their narratives, etc, to get some idea of what they were doing and how they were constructing their stories. But obviously most of us don’t have that luxury.

  1. Concerning Josephus and the miracles… Have to consider context, and Josephus’s tendency to exaggerate, and his background as a Jewish aristocrat.
    Context – Josephus never says he witnessed these miracles, or interviewed any witnesses. The previous paragraph talks about false prophets. “A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get up upon the temple, AND (my emphasis) that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people…that they should wait for deliverance from God: and this was to keep them from deserting….Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers…”
    So Josephus was making the point that the people thought these signs meant God was going to deliver them, while Josephus says “the signs that were so evident and did so plainly foretell their future desolation”.
    Immediately after Josephus’ above comments, he mentions the star, comet, light about the altar, heifer giving birth to a lamb, etc..

    My opinion, this was Josephus’ main point, false prophets giving miracles for deliverance, when they meant coming destruction. Not whether the miracles were true or not. Maybe his “Jewishness” influenced what he heard second hand about the miracles, to assume they actually happened.

    In terms of exaggeration, Josephus make a few statements that I’ve always found both interesting and funny. Josephus states that Jerusalem had about 3 million people in it during Passover. Considering that the city now only has about 100,000 people in it, I doubt that the city of 2,000 years ago, could physically support 3 million people via the city’s infrastructure back then (water, sewer, food, lodging, etc).

    More funny, about Josephus’ “Jewishness” in his respect for the Temple, he states about the Temple, “On it’s top it had spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it”.

    I find this rather funny, considering the whole point of the Temple was to kill and butcher large animals, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone that has killed and butchered an animal, knows that much blood, guts, and feces are involved in the process.

    So my point – Take what Josephus says with a grain of salt! But he is not verifying miracles through eye witnesses.

    1. Agreed. The point of the post, however, was to demonstrate the hollowness of the reasoning of certain biblical scholars in their approach to establishing historicity of events in the gospels. The reasoning used there, if applied to Josephus, would give even greater authenticity to those signs because they were written by an eyewitness within 10 years of their occurrence and in settings that implied many other eyewitnesses. Some gospel interpreters, if consistent, ought to argue that Josephus could not get away with such audacious claims unless there was some truth behind them somehow. He would have been called out as a liar. He could not get away with such fabrications. That’s the reasoning we regularly encounter among some scholars with respect to the New Testament.

      (By the way, my final point about the angels of Mons was that there was no such mass hallucination. Check the link — that story that there had been a mass vision took root only a month after the battle. Eyewitnesses from the battle itself clearly had no ability to nip in the bud that story and prevent it from spreading around the world and being repeated and believed generations later.)

      1. Interesting coincidence. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Mons is the location of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). Capability to send launch keys for nuclear weapons. Perhaps the launch keys could be considered “angels”, today. Or “devils”, depending upon whether you are on the sending end or receiving end.

    2. Gary – you think it’s “funny” that Josephus describes “spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds” on the roof of the sanctuary, when “the whole point of the Temple was to kill and butcher large animals, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone that has killed and butchered an animal, knows that much blood, guts, and feces are involved in the process.”

      Animal sacrifice took place in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary, and the altar and couryard were equipped with drainage for the blood and plenty of water to sluice the courtyard floor; the Letter of Pseudo-Aristeas specifically addresses this issue in its description of the temple (88-91 – https://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/aristeas.htm) and there is some archaeological evidence to support it in the honeycomb of cisterns under the Haram al-Sharif. This was of course pretty normal in temple precincts throughout the ancient world.

      Similarly, builders of the Jerusalem temple who wanted to prevent a build-up of guano on the roof parapet and the exterior walls of the sanctuary, might well have installed the anti-perch spikes that Josephus (who knew the sanctuary first hand) describes – more or less the same method used even now on public buildings. It seems reasonable enough, and hardly a valid object of scepticism or evidence that we should “take what Josephus says with a grain of salt” – though I entirely agree that we should evaluate his writing with a healthy critical distance – as is appropriate for all ancient writings.

    3. Gary

      You say that it is “funny” that Josephus claims that there were “spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it” given that “the whole point of the Temple was to kill and butcher large animals, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone that has killed and butchered an animal, knows that much blood, guts, and feces are involved in the process.”

      I don’t understand what is so funny about this. Animal sacrifice took place in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. The altar was equipped with channels to drain the blood, and the temple precinct was supplied with plenty of water to sluice and cleanse the courtyard itself. The Letter of Pseudo-Aristeas addresses this issue explicitly: “The whole of the floor is paved with stones and slopes down to the appointed places, that water may be conveyed to wash away the blood from the sacrifices, for many thousand beasts are sacrificed there on the feast days” etc (see 88-91 https://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/aristeas.htm). The honeycomb of cisterns under the Haram al-Sharif (along with other, more equivocal, archaeological evidence) goes some way to corroborate that.

      It seems entirely credible to me that, similarly, the builders of the temple wanted to prevent the build-up of guano on the roof parapet and down the exterior walls of the sanctuary, and employed the anti-perch device that Josephus (who after all knew the temple first hand) describes – and which is more or less the method used today in public buildings. And therefore I can’t see that this particular issue is evidence that we should take “what Josephus says with a grain of salt” – though I entirely agree that we must always read Josephus with a critical eye, as we should when we assess any ancient writer’s work.

      1. Perhaps I should have said hypocritical, not funny. But as I said, Josephus was probably blinded by the religious aura of the Temple. I don’t care if the animal sacrifice was in the courtyard or the High Priest’s bedroom. Blood, guts, feces. Most all of the presentations/pictures of the Temple I’ve seen show a pristine environment. Seems like most people, both religious and secular, have ignored the realistic facts. Maybe picture a pristine church located right next to the Chicago slaughter houses, and cattle yards holding the animals, waiting for their next turn up. Add summer heat, and flies, and the sound of animals bellowing as their throat is cut, and you have something less than what I would call a “holy” picture. I do not mean to be disrespectful in my comment, so take my opinion with a grain of salt too. Just seems a rather disgusting picture, as oppose to a “non-polluted” environment, via pigeon spikes. Just my opinion, nothing more.

      2. I looked at your reference. A little long for me to read the whole thing. But when stated, “The whole of the floor is paved with stones and slopes down to the appointed places, that water may be conveyed to wash away the blood from the sacrifices, for many thousand beasts are sacrificed there on the feast days”… I wonder if there is any archeological evidence of how a vast amount of water could be pumped up to the high point where the Temple is located. I know they had wells, but it seems a rather large holding tank and pumps would be required to keep the place even minimally clean. Not to mention that the entire site is in an arid climate. Fires burning the sacrificial meat would add a nice smokiness to the environment. I think the only explanation might be the 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in sacrifice, might also be an exaggeration. Don’t know, though. I think much of this is exaggeration.

        1. Gary, I take your point that it’s a purely subjective response, but I can’t help but think that the notion that Josephus was being hypocritical is anachronistic – an imposition of modern sensibility upon the ancient thought-world. After two millennia of non-sacrificial Judeo-Christian worship, the modern Western world tends to think of religion in terms of moral and spiritual matters; blood and guts have no place in such a rarefied sphere, and instead are associated with the earthy, secular worlds of the hospital or abattoir. But it absolutely wasn’t so in ancient times; the slaughter of animals & blood itself were central to the practice of religious cults and the sense of the sacred throughout the ancient world, and there was no sense of incongruity which your image of the “pristine” church next to the “Chicago slaughterhouse” conjures up for us today.

          And a propos of that Chicago abattoir image, I suspect that it would have been appropriate for only a single day of the year – Passover – when a vast number of households and countless pilgrims all brought a lamb to the temple for slaughtering prior to the feast. But under normal circumstances, I think your notion of 24-hour 7-days-a-week animal slaughter is wildly overstated. Apart from the two lambs per day as burnt offerings (one in the morning and one in the late afternoon) and not including additional sacrifices on the Sabbath, holidays and extraordinary special occasions (eg major events like the accession of a Roman Emperor), the sacrificial load was unlikely to have been anything like as high as you suppose. People brought their personal sacrifices, for sure, but the vast majority couldn’t afford cattle, sheep and goats – at least not often. Small birds and grain offerings in all probability formed the majority of everyday personal sacrifices during the temple’s day-to-day sacrificial agenda. And all this is as true for Athens, Antioch or Rome as it was for Jerusalem.

          As for the “pollution” that you refer to, the standard translation here is somewhat archaic and the word “pollution” has a sanctimonious overtone for the modern reader that isn’t necessary in the context: the Greek word Josephus uses (μολύνοιτο) can mean, more prosaically, “to stain / befoul”. If you’ve shelled out money on expensive marble facing, you really don’t want it to be covered in bird-shit, even if there is a spot of butchery in the courtyard below.

          Your point about the water-system in your second comment is a good one. There is in fact evidence of an aqueduct (The “Lower Aqueduct”) that brought water from the so-called Solomon’s Pools (at 765 m. above sea level) to the outer temple mount floor (at 735 m.), which dates to the Hasmonean period (c140-116 BCE – see details here: https://israelpalestineguide.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/lower-aqueduct-wpics.pdf) As for your additional comment about water pumps, the principle of the syphon was actually well-known from Hellenistic times and was used at Pergamon as early as 200 BCE to bring water up to the acropolis (http://www.romanaqueducts.info/webteksten/waterinantiquity.htm). So Herodian architects certainly could have created a siphoned section of the aqueduct to raise water from the outer to the higher inner temple court (raising it from 735 m. to 741 m. above sea level) – allowing water to be released under pressure to sluice away blood from the courtyard floor. Of course there’s no actual evidence of this, so I am not going to press the point, but I think we should allow that Pseudo-Aristeas presents a picture that is quite consistent with contemporary know-how.

          1. My point of the water was not so much that it wasn’t available, but to question the volume available with ancient water lifting systems.

            About sacrifice, I think there is probably a priest’s view, and the average person’s view in those days. The priest’s view is full of exaggeration.

            I think the Temple is like our version of the IRS. Over-bloated bureaucracy, run by bureaucrats (Priests), who probably over exaggerated their role. And Josephus was born to a family of priests. So he certainly is promoting the party line. Along with the average person probably trying to cheat, by doing their own thing with the meat (a valuable commodity). So 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, is an exaggeration (although I don’t remember where I got that). One other point of inconsistency in the entire process – blood was suppose to be unclean. But there was plenty of it around.

            From “Who Wrote the Bible”, Richard Elliott Friedman, about animal sacrifice:
            “In order to understand why this made such a big difference, one must know something about sacrifice in the biblical world. The function of sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood matters in the Bible. Modern readers often take it to mean the unnecessary taking of animal life, or they believe that the person who offered the sacrifice was giving up something of his or her own in order to compensate for some sin or perhaps to win God’s favor. In the biblical world, however, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if humans wanted to eat meat they had to recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performed in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar. A portion of the sacrifice (a tithe) was given to the priest. This applied to all meat meals (but not fish or fowl).
            The centralization of religion meant that if you wanted to eat lamb you could not sacrifice your sheep at home or at a local sanctuary. You had to bring the sheep to the priest at the Temple altar in Jerusalem. This also would mean a sizable gathering of Levite priests at Jerusalem, which was now the only sanctioned location where they could conduct the sacrifices and receive their tithes. It also meant considerable distinction and power for the High Priest in Jerusalem and for the priestly family from which he came. This idea of centralizing religion around one temple and one altar was an important step in the development of Judah’s religion, and over two thousand years later it became an important clue in unraveling who wrote the Bible.”

            “Its first law is the law of centralization of worship. It tells the worshiper that if he wants to eat meat he is not free simply to slaughter his sheep or cow himself. Rather, he must take the animal to the one approved place of worship, the “place where Yahweh sets his name,” and there a consecrated priest will perform the slaughter at the altar. The only exception to this rule, according to Deuteronomy, is when someone lives too far from the official place to bring the animal there. Then he may slaughter the animal at home as long
            as he spills the blood onto the ground.”

            1. I have to quibble with one comment you make.

              You say: “blood was suppose to be unclean.” Well, not really. Blood was in fact super-holy, super-powerful – ‘For the life of a creature is in the blood… Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood…”‘ (leviticus 17:11-12). Blood was effectively the God-given life-medium, and so too holy, too “powerful,” to be consumed, and it was for this reason that it was either collected from the slaughtered animal in a bowl and literally thrown onto the altar – i.e. “returned” to God, or (as a later concession) spilled onto the earth. The significance of that can be understood in the Hebrew: blood = dam and earth = adamah. (As an aside, Adam – the man created from the adamah – might quite properly be translated as “Earthling.”)

              Of course, as blood was the “life-medium”, so, unsurprisingly, spilt blood had an association with death, and this gave rise to the notion that menstruation, along with non-reproductive emission of semen and contact with a corpse, all required special purification rituals to counteract these deathly associations.

              What I’m saying is that the notion that blood was “unclean” is too simple. It was far more nuanced and complex.

              1. Well, not worth arguing about.

                “all required special purification rituals to counteract these deathly associations”

                “Blood was in fact super-holy”

                I consider it less “complex”, and more contradictory.

          2. Stephanie Dalley (2013). The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced. Oxford University Press.

            (T)he Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually constructed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (reigned 704 – 681 BC) for his palace at Nineveh. Stephanie Dalley posits that during the intervening centuries the two sites became confused, and the extensive gardens at Sennacherib’s palace were attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon. Archaeological excavations have found traces of a vast system of aqueducts attributed to Sennacherib by an inscription on its remains, which Dalley proposes were part of a 80-kilometre (50 mi) series of canals, dams, and aqueducts used to carry water to Nineveh with water-raising screws used to raise it to the upper levels of the gardens.


            The ancients were capable of what we see as quite astonishing feats of hydraulic and civil engineering. The disbelief in such has created the ‘Ancient Astronaut’ industry. Closer in time to Herod’s Temple at Jerusalem is Ba’albek in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. Just how 600 ton+ blocks were moved isn’t known; but moved they were.

              1. I hadn’t. Tah very much for the links! I’m not in the habit of watching docs, especially on archaeology or history. If I ever think “Oh, that sounds interesting” its because I’m already interested and more in-depth coverage turns out to be sat on a shelf in front of me! Now, it is a few years since I read Dalley, so I’ll have a look at these and refresh my memory. Thanks again. 🙂

              2. The second vid IS British, but ironically the broadcaster, Channel 4, has blocked the viewing of it in Britain on copyright grounds. Mad or what?

                I liked Stephanie’s remark comparing the dangers of biking in Oxford to that of car bombs in Mosul! She is a war baby and English, so the understatement is amusing but not unexpected. 🙂

                Good video. The satellite reconnaissance I wasn’t familiar with. US Air Farce accidently does something useful! and the CGI visualisations were a great plus. She mentioned things looking like they had been built by giants; the bases of the aqueduct arches in long shot looked very like the Giants Causeway, a natural phenomenon and tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Thanks again for posting I enjoyed it and learnt more about the topic. Good stuff. 🙂

  2. Good series on eyewitnesses to miraculous events.

    In an unpublished study I made on heavenly and terrestrial signs in the NT (notably the Olivet prophecy and Revelation) I point out that Luke 21.20, “And when you see Jerusalem compassed by armies, then know its desolation is near” may allude to the same vision of armies in the clouds you quote from Josephus.

    On the star that hung over Jerusalem (i.e. Halley’s Comet), compare the star of Bethlehem, which Nikos Kokkinos identified (correctly IMO) with Halley’s Comet in 11 BCE, which contemporary reports said hung over Rome (and was also seen in China). All such celestial omens appear to hang over wherever location they are seen.

    The observation of heavenly portents have a long history in both the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean.

    1. Interesting (re Luke’s armies). I allow myself nothing stronger than a curious possibility that Josephus’s signs influenced the that Little Apocalypse in all three Synoptics.

      The fleeing theme is common to both; signs in the stars and changes in light common to both, with the synoptics pushing the signs more to biblical precedents than Greco-Roman ones; perhaps — the longest stretch of all — an unnatural abomination in the temple; and both followed, of course, by that 7th sign, the death of the apocalyptic prophet Jesus.

      I won’t protest if you tell me I’m dreaming.

  3. The very next sentence in Jewish War>/i> VI, 5 is the start of the account of Jesus, the son of [ben] Ananus which finishes “he gave up the ghost”, as some versions of Mark 15:37, Matt 27:50, Luke 23:46, and John 19:30 do (similar phrases in the NT include ‘he breathed his last’).

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