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Exemplary character: John the Baptist 

Joseph son of Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus — surnamed after his patron, the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius — was the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity. Without his work, much of the contemporaneous history of Israel would be floating in a vacuum. Josephus's vignettes concerning Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus's brother, James, are the only pieces of outside evidence relating to first-century New Testament figures. The issue of their authenticity is, therefore, of major importance. However, before tackling it, let me say a few words about the author and his reliability as an historian. 

Josephus belonged to the Judaean priestly aristocracy. He lists among his forebears the daughter of the Jewish high priest and king, Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai). Born in 37 CE and educated in Jerusalem, Josephus boasted of precocious expertise in the Law. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he studied the "philosophies" of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as the wisdom of the Jewish hermit Bannus, finally choosing to become a Pharisee. In 64 CE, he sailed to Rome where Poppaea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero, was his benefactress.

He returned to Jerusalem before the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion (66 CE) and like many of his upper-class, land-owning compatriots, he first opposed the war. A prompt U-turn soon followed and, aged 29, Josephus became the officer in command of the revolutionary forces in Galilee. His short military career ended ingloriously in 67 CE, when he was captured by the Romans at Jotapata (Yodfat). Taken before Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces, Josephus predicted that he would become emperor. Two years later, the prophecy came true and Josephus was freed. Vespasian returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge of the war. Josephus was then used as an interpreter and negotiator by Titus in his talks with Jerusalem's Jewish defenders. 

Although in the eyes of the revolutionaries he was a traitor, Josephus believed he was serving his compatriots and used his influence with Titus to liberate many Jewish prisoners. He even rescued three crucified acquaintances, one of whom survived. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Josephus followed Titus to Rome, where he was granted citizenship. The financial support he received from Vespasian and his successors, Titus and Domitian, allowed Josephus to lead a leisurely life as a man of letters. He was married four times and his third and fourth wives bore him five sons.

Josephus's works, aimed at glorifying the Jewish people, were primarily addressed to educated Greeks and Romans. The seven books of The Jewish War, covering the period from Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BCE) to the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (74 CE), were drafted in Aramaic and translated by Josephus into Greek with the help of assistants in the late 70s. He tells his readers that both the Emperor Titus and the Jewish king Agrippa II praised the reliability of his history in private correspondence. All his other books were written in Greek.

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Tyler Smith
December 20th, 2009
2:12 AM
The solution Prof. Vermes arrives at in this article re: the Testimonium Flavium is well-reasoned, but is at the end of the day only a best guess. We might also consider the equally likely possibility that Josephus wrote about Jesus as a false messiah in terms like those he used for Theudas and "the Egyptian," but that his evaluation was cleaned up by Christian copyists.

Fabio P.Barbieri
December 19th, 2009
1:12 PM
The reference to Jesus attracting to himself "many Greeks" is without Gospel support. Nevertheless, if Josephus knew of a mixed Jewish-Gentile church in Rome, he may have believed that a similar structure existed at the time of Jesus. That is to place an unnecessary hypothesis to explain a statement that is at least tendentious. Greeks certainly did try to meet Jesus (John 12.20-26), an affair that seems to have caused a great deal of fluttering among his followers, and which Jesus himself took as the sign that His day of glorification was coming. What we do not know is whether there were any Greeks (that is, non-Jews) among the thousands of followers of Jesus; but the appearance of these Greeks is certainly no secondary affair. It disconcerts the disciples to the point where Philip feels he has to discuss it with Andrew (both apostles with Greek names) before either of them speaks to Jesus, and it is sandwiched between two tremendous events - the resurrection of Lazarus, and the royal entrance into Jerusalem. The resurrection appearances on the third day, together with the relevant prophecies, are part of the apologetic arsenal of the early church and have nothing to do with Josephus. Certainties are such nice things. Considering that Bowersock has shown, what hardly needed being proved anyway, that the story of Jesus, including death and resurrection, was known in Rome from the seventh decade AD and widely known and imitated in various aspects of middle Roman culture (Glenn Bowersock, Fiction as History, passim), there is absolutely no need to postulate, as you so clearly do, that Josephus must have been ignorant of it. To the contrary, it makes perfect sense as an explanation of why that weird sect of Christians has still (!) not died out: it is because they believe their leader to have performed the paradoxon ergon of rising from the grave.

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