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Flavius Josephus and Preterism

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1618James Hamilton, representing a hybrid view of historical premillenialism, said something like the following during the Symposium that he, Sam Waldron, and I participated in on February 23, 2013 in Reno, Nevada: “If preterists didn’t have Josephus, they wouldn’t be preterists.”

I’m working from memory, but this is pretty close to what he said, and if it’s not exactly what he said, it accurately represents his view.

A preterist argues that certain prophecies have already been fulfilled and that includes events outlined in the Olivet Discourse. “[T]he term preterism,” Simon J. Kistemaker writes, “derives from the Latin presupposition preter (‘past’) and the verb ire  (to go’), thus referring to what which has gone past and belongs to history.”[1]

I heard from a reliable source that Hamilton has made similar claims in his classes at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is a professor. “Without Josephus, preterism wouldn’t have a leg to stand on,” as one student of his put it.

The curious thing about Hamilton’s claim is that other than one Josephus reference, my entire presentation came from the Bible, beginning with Revelation 22:10 and 1:1, 3 and moving on to Matthew 21–24, spending almost all my time going through the Olivet Discourse comparing Scripture with Scripture and not Josephus.

My only Josephus reference was about the woman who killed, cooked, and ate her own child during the siege of Jerusalem. Adam Clarke offers the following reference to Josephus reference in his commentary on Leviticus 26:29:

Ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, etc. — This was literally fulfilled at the siege of Jerusalem. Josephus, Wars of the Jews [Book 6, Chap. 3, sec. 4], gives us a particular instance in dreadful detail of a woman named Mary, who, in the extremity of the famine during the siege, killed her sucking child, roasted, and had eaten part of it when discovered by the soldiers!

Josephus’ works have been used for centuries, and not just by preterists. In fact, even Professor Hamilton makes use of Josephus in support of the canonicity of the Old Testament. In his article “Scripture: The Evangelical View,” Hamilton includes the following subheading: “Other Jewish Writings and the OT Canon.” He introduces the section this way: “The evidence drawn from both ancient testimony and the surviving manuscripts supports the evangelical understanding of the Old Testament canon.” An example of “ancient testimonies” is the works of Flavius Josephus (37–100 AD). “Josephus’s statement in Against Apion,” Hamilton writes, “also provides strong evidence on the Old Testament canon.” The following is a citation from Josephus (the footnote references are Hamilton’s):

Seeing that with us it is not open to everybody to write the records, and that there is no discrepancy in what is written;[2] seeing that, on the contrary, the prophets alone had this privilege, obtaining their knowledge of the most remote and ancient  history through the inspiration which they owed to God,[3] and committing to writing a clear account of the events of their own time just as they occurred[4] — it follows, I say, that we do not possess myriads of inconsistent books, conflicting with each other. Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time. Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the death of the lawgiver. This period falls only a little short of three thousand years. Form the death of Moses until Artaxerxes, who succeeded Xerxes as king of Persian,[5] the prophets subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the events of their own times in thirteen books.[6] The remaining four books[7] contain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of life. From Artaxerxes to our own time the complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.[8] We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own Scriptures. For, although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable;[9] and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God,[10] to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for them.[11]

Earlier in his article, Hamilton points out that “extra-canonical literature also testifies to” the reality that “the sixty six books of the protestant canon have been recognized as inspired.”

Does this mean that without the testimony of Josephus and other ancient non-biblical writers that the books that make up the Old Testament canon would be unsupportable? Hamilton would never argue this way. So why is it appropriate for him to use extra-canonical sources to support his argument for the full inclusion of the books of the Old Testament into the biblical canon, but it’s inappropriate for preterists to appeal to Josephus to corroborate what Jesus predicted about the destruction of Jerusalem found in the Olivet Discourse?

Why is it OK to use Josephus as a supporting testimony in one case but not the other? Hamilton commits what has become known as the “Taxicab Fallacy,” someone who pursues a line of reasoning to defend his worldview but then jumps out of the system when the same line of reasoning is used against it. It’s OK to ride in the Josephus taxi on some topics, but not when it comes to supporting a preterist view of eschatology.

Like Hamilton, who first appeals to the Bible in “The Witness of the OT to Its Own Canonicity” and only secondarily to non-biblical sources, preterists begin with the “witness” of Jesus to His own testimony and only secondarily to non-biblical historical sources like Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Preterists agree with Hamilton when he writes, “The Old Testament bears witness to its own canonicity by evidencing a recognition of certain writings as those in which God has spoken.”

Preterists argue in the same way when they contend that the Olivet Discourse is a prophetic description of events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple and the divine judgment on Jerusalem that took place in AD 70. Jesus’ words as recorded by the three gospel writers bear witness to the argument that the first-century destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is in view based on a number of contextual factors like audience reference (second person plural “you”), the way “this generation” is used repeatedly in the gospels to mark out that present generation as the affected generation, and actual references to fulfilled events (e.g., earthquakes, false prophets, famines, persecution, tribulation, etc.).

Taking Hamilton’s opening sentence introducing his use of biblical sources in support of the canonicity question, I’ve reformulated it and applied it to the preterist understanding of Jesus’ pronouncement about the destruction of Jerusalem that would take place within a generation and would mark the end of the old covenant age (Matt. 24:3; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; 1 Peter 4:7): The New Testament bears witness to its own revelatory character by appealing to “certain writings as those in which God has spoken,” namely, Jesus’ own words in the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.

While the Bible is the best interpreter of itself, it helps to have non-biblical historical sources from the same time period to help flesh out details not found in Scripture and to support what is found in the biblical text. The writings of Josephus are some of those historical works. We would be foolish to ignore them.

Entire fields of study are based on digging up the past looking for collateral historical information to shed light on the biblical record. As we saw, Hamilton follows this approach. Others in the evangelical community follow a similar methodology. A good example is Edwin Yamauchi’s The Stones and the Scriptures: An Evangelical Perspective (1972). Biblical archeology is a growing field of study that is adding to our understanding of the background of Scripture.[12]

Josephus offers eye-witness testimony of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Biblical scholars dream of having such material to compare to the testimony of Scripture. F. J. Foakes Jackson writes:

No one interested in the study of the methods of ancient historians, or even of the sources of the record of facts of Scripture, can dispense with Josephus. In the New Testament, especially, scholars recognise a variety of sources for the Gospels and Acts. As their predecessors had done in regard to the Old Testament, they have realised that earlier documents were employed to produce the Hebrew and Christian books as we now have them.

******

For the Jewish war and its terrific consequences Josephus is our only contemporary authority, most of Tacitus’ account being hopelessly lost; and there is no orderly record from any other Jewish source in existence.[13]

In the short time I had at the Symposium to respond directly to Jim Hamilton’s absurd charge about Josephus, I pointed out that Jesus’ words are alone sufficient that the Olivet Discourse is about the judgment of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple that took place within a generation as Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:34). If Josephus’ history had never existed, we would still believe Jesus when He said, “not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (24:2), and “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” 24:34)

Jesus was referencing the temple that the disciples saw and pointed out to Him, (24:2), the temple that Jesus said would be left to “this generation” (23:36) — their own generation — “desolate” (23:38). Coupled with the meaning of “this generation” (24:34) and how it always refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking, there is no need for extra-biblical historical information to verify what Jesus predicted. But thing of it is, we do have eyewitness testimony to what Jesus predicted and for that we should be thankful.

The fact that we do have the works of Josephus to corroborate the testimony of Scripture is looked upon by nearly all Christian scholars as a providential gift. Consider these comments from Paul L. Maier, professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, from his new edited translated of Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War:

Apart from the Bible itself, Flavius Josephus is by far the most important historical source illuminating the entire biblical era, and for some New Testament personalities, he is an even more comprehensive source.

*****

Small wonder, then, that the venerable Whiston translation of Josephus (1737) used to stand next to the Bible on so many library shelves in the English-speaking world with quasi-scriptural authority.[14]

Future articles will show that the opinion of Dr. Maier is not unique; it’s Professor Hamilton who is out of sync with history.



[1]Simon J. Kistemaker, “Hyper-Preterism and Revelation,” When Shall These Things Be?: A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism, ed. Keith A. Mathison (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 218. In Latin, the perfect tense commonly functions as the preterite tense and refers to an action completed in the past. The Greek equivalent would be the aorist tense.

[2]“Josephus clearly thinks that the writings of the Old Testament do not contradict each other.”

[3]“Josephus manifestly states that only the writings of prophets who were inspired by God were recognized as Scripture.”

[4]“Josephus states that the writings of the inspired prophets are perspicuous — clear account — and historically accurate — ‘just as they occurred.’”

[5]“From this statement and the reference to Artaxerxes that follows a few phrases later, we see that Josephus regards the whole of the Old Testament to have been completed by around 465 BC.”

[6]“Probably (1) Joshua, (2) Judges and Ruth, (3) Samuel, (4) Kings, (5) Chronicles, (6) Ezra and Nehemiah, (7) Esther, (8) Job, (9) Isaiah, (10) Jeremiah, (11) Ezekiel, (12) Minor Prophets, (13) Daniel.”

[7]“Probably (1) Psalms, (2) Song of Songs, (3) Proverbs, (4) Ecclesiastes.”

[8]“Josephus draws a firm line between the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and his basis for drawing that line is the fact that the Apocrypha were not written by inspired prophets.”

[9]“It is not difficult to harmonize the evidence that some things in the OT were updated with what Josephus says here about nothing being altered. From his statements that ―it is not open to everybody to write the records‖ and from his assertion that only inspired prophets had the privilege, we can also say the following: while anyone might undertake an effort to edit or alter a text previously recognized as sacred Scripture, from what Josephus says we have evidence that the community would only accept alterations or updates done by those recognized as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the evidence would seem to allow for someone like Ezra, who was recognized as an inspired author of Scripture, to update place names and perhaps arrange the final form of the Psalter. See further Michael A. Grisanti, ‘Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture,’ JETS 44 (2001), 577–98.”

[10]“Josephus indicates that all Jews regard these twenty two books, which can be identified as the thirty nine books of the Protestant Old Testament, as the unalterable, error free, authoritative, inspired word of God. On the reference to the twenty two books of the Old Testament, see Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, 235–40, 263–64.”

[11]Josephus, Against Apion, trans. J. St. J. Thackeray, LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), 1.37–42 (LCL 186:177–81). Hamilton’s article can be found at http://www.jamesmhamilton.org/renown/static/2009/07/scripture-the-evangelical-view.pdf

[12]James K. Hoffmeier, The Archeology of the Bible (Oxford, England: Lion Hudson, 2008).

[13]F. J. Foakes Jackson, Josephus and the Jews: The Religion and History of the Jews Explained by Flavius Josephus (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House [1930] 1977), xiii, 181.

[14]Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988), 9.

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