Jesus in Ancient History

Among the early extra-biblical historical sources that mention Jesus Christ, a particularly fascinating example is a reference in the writings of the 1st century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (Note: Josephus was a hesitant leader in the A.D. 66-70 Jewish uprising against Roman rule.  In A.D. 67, the Romans defeated forces under Josephus in Galilee, whereupon this former military man wisely changed careers.  He eventually became a historian sympathetic to his captors.  The work I reference below is my source for all the biographical details in this post):

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” [Antiquities 18.3.3, in William Whiston, trans., The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 480.]

This one paragraph provides a stunning account of what Josephus (who was not a Christian) knew concerning Jesus.  Consider this:

  1. Josephus knew the bare facts of the Gospel – Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lived again.


  1. Josephus, by recording the basic storyline in an uncontested manner, confirms the historical context that we read in the Gospels – 1) Jesus undertook a public ministry that gathered Jews and Gentiles alike; 2) Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus at the instigation of the Jewish leaders.


  1. Josephus understood the Christian witness of Jesus as God’s Messiah and the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecy.


  1. Josephus apparently knew that Jesus’ followers believed him to be more than a mere man (Note: Observe this historian’s caveat, “if it be lawful to call him a man”). Notice how a non-Christian reflects the Christian belief concerning Jesus’ divinity long before the Nicene Creeds of A.D. 325 and A.D. 383.


  1. Josephus knew of accounts concerning Jesus’ miracles.


  1. Josephus attests to the fact that Jesus’ message was not exclusive to Jews only. Indeed, the transcultural applicability of the Gospel is a prominent theme in the New Testament (see the Gospel of Luke for instance).


In other words, Josephus knew much of Christian truth even before, or right as, the New Testament coalesced into its eventual canonical form.  This suggests acute awareness by Josephus both of Christian oral tradition, and Christian writings.  Perhaps the fact that he lived his writing days in Rome gave Josephus (who died circa A.D. 100) access to much of what became the finalized Bible.  Certainly, he learned a great deal from the witness of Christians in the Roman church.

Regardless of how he learned what he learned, this one paragraph from Josephus is a remarkable witness to what the Christian church believed about Jesus from its very beginning!

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

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