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Josephus Among the Christian Scholars and Commentators

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JosephusA study of Church history shows that the works of Josephus were consulted by Christians very early. Heinz Schreckenberg and Kurt Schubert trace the use of the works of Josephus to the earliest of the ante-Nicene fathers beginning, possibly, with Clement of Rome (died c. 101), Melito of Sardis (died c. 190), Irenaeus (died c. 202), Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225), Hippolytus (170–235), and others. While the New Testament canon “was not compiled until the end of the second century, . . . the reception of Josephus by early Christianity” had already begun “in this period.”[1]

Schreckenberg and Schubert see a number of parallels between the Olivet Discourse, especially Luke’s version, and Josephus’ Wars of the Jews:

For example, Luke 21:24 (‘they will be carried captive into all countries’) fits hand in glove with War 3:540; 6:384, 414–418 (the sale of captured Jews into slavery), a possibility already realized with much generalization and exaggeration by Eusebius, when he has ‘the entire Jewish people’ . . . being sent into Roman slavery (. . . GCS [Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller] 23:349, 17–20). Other Christian theologians referred Luke 21:23 to the shocking teknophagia[2] by Maria (War 6:301–213) [who because of hunger cooks and eats her own child]. Once Christian eyes had been opened to these possibilities, they divined that fall of Jerusalem already from the Old Testament (e.g., Dan. 9:26); just as in general since early Christian days or at the latest by the Middle Ages, New Testament words of doom and judgement of the most various kinds were seen as fulfilled in the events of [AD] 70 (e.g., Matt. 21:19–20, 33–46; 22:1–4).[3]

My presentation at the Symposium began with a full contextual study of the Olivet Discourse beginning with when Jesus “had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 21:1). I continued with chapters 22 and 23 and finally gave a quick verse-by-verse exposition of the 24th chapter with possibly only one reference to Josephus, the same one mentioned above by Schreckenberg and Schubert, the story of Mary who cooked and ate her own child.

Let’s see how other Christian historians and scholars view the works of Josephus, beginning with the fourth-century historian Eusebius:

Eusebius Pamphilius (c. 265–339), Ecclesiastical History:

It is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Savior in which he foretold these very events. His words are as follows: “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day; For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” [Matt. 24:19–21]. The historian [Josephus], reckoning the whole number of the slain, says that eleven hundred thousand persons perished by famine and sword, and that the rest of the rioters and robbers, being betrayed by each other after the taking of the city, were slain. . . . These things took place in this manner in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, in accordance with the prophecies of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who by divine power saw them beforehand as if they were already present, and wept and mourned according to the statement of the holy evangelists, who give the very words which be uttered, when, as if addressing Jerusalem herself, he said: “If thou hadst known, even thou, in this day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a rampart about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee and thy children even with the ground” [Luke 19:42]. And then, as if speaking concerning the people, he says, “For there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” [Luke 21:23–24]. And again: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh” [Luke 21:20]. If anyone compares the words of our Savior with the other accounts of the historian [Josephus] concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Savior were truly divine and marvelously strange (Book III, Ch. VII).

Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (83).

“One of the reasons Christians copied Josephus’s works was that they provided rich information on a few figures of the New Testament, especially John the Baptizer, James the leader of the early Jerusalem church, and Jesus” (83).

Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament

“Every student of the Bible realizes that Josephus is extremely significant for New Testament study. He was born in AD 37, just a few years after Jesus’ death and not much later than Paul’s conversion to Christianity. He grew up in Jerusalem . . . . Thus Josephus’ works offer us a potential gold mine for understanding the world of the New Testament as well as being a resource that is not even remotely paralleled in another ancient writer.”[4]

Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., The Topical Josephus: Historical Accounts that Shed Light on the Bible

“The importance of Josephus for the study of the New Testament cannot be stressed enough. It would not be an overstatement to say that, if it were possible to have only one work to use in a study of the New Testament, the writings of Joseph ben Mattias, better known as Flavius Josephus (or just Josephus) would be the correct choice. . . . His life as a Jewish priest, Pharisee, and Jewish army general in charge of Galilee, and his being an eyewitness of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 make him well qualified to give firsthand information about life in Palestine during the New Testament period.”

Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick, eds., Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study:

When we think of the history of Judaism during the first century AD and about the first century in general, pride of place goes to the pro-Roman, Jewish general and historian Josephus (AD 37–c. 100). Without him, we would know far less about this period. His four works give an account ranging from the time of Genesis to Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 and the resulting political fallout. . . . At one time in the West’s educational system, Josephus was the text read most after the Bible.[5]

During the Symposium, James Hamilton also said that if the destruction of Jerusalem was the fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse, then why didn’t the biblical writers comment about the subject after the event? The answer is quite simple: All the New Testament books were written prior to the fall of Jerusalem that took place in AD 70. John A. T. Robinson, in his book Redating the New Testament,[6] developed the thesis that every New Testament book was written prior to the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem, including the book of Revelation.
There are many events recorded in the Bible that are not found in non-biblical historical works. Consider everything from the announcement to Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist and the ascension of Jesus into heaven and much of what is in between.

There aren’t many historical works from the first century that touch on the period, so to find a source as complete as the works of Josephus of that period of history is a providential find.

Through a process of discovery, I found that a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse was a common feature in commentaries and in various narrative-style books that describe the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as it is outlined in the Olivet Discourse of the synoptic gospels.

  • Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies (1754). Newton, like James Hamilton, is a premillennialist, but unlike Hamilton, Newton is a preterist when it comes to the Olivet Discourse.
  • N. Nisbitt, The Prophecy of the Destruction of Jerusalem (1787).
  • George Halford, The Destruction of Jerusalem: An Absolute and Irresistible Proof of the Divine Origin of Christianity, etc (1805).
  • William Patton, The Judgment of Jerusalem Predicted in Scripture, Fulfilled in History (1876).
  • Alfred J. Church, The Story of the Last Days of Jerusalem (1902).

There are also numerous editions of Alexander Keith’s (1791–1880) Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy, etc., first published in 1832, in which he includes a chapter on “The Destruction of Jerusalem.” It went through numerous editions and many printings.

Keith’s apologetic work on prophecy was designed to counter liberal claims that the Bible is merely the work of men. Bible prophecy, Keith maintained, demonstrated that this was an impossible claim that could not be defended in terms of many examples of fulfilled prophecy. Edward Giddings, in his book American Christian Rulers, “relates how Keith’s book was instrumental in persuading Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall of the messianic claims of Jesus Christ in the days before his death on July 6, 1835.”[7] The following is from Giddings:

[Marshall] believed in the truth of the Christian revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church. But, during the last months of his life, he read Keith on Prophecy, where our Saviour's divinity is incidentally treated, and was convinced by his work, and the fuller investigation to which it led, of the supreme divinity of the Saviour.[8]

Keith used a number of extra-biblical sources, as do almost every Bible expositor, ancient and modern, to offer support for the biblical record regarding fulfilled prophecy. It was no different when he came to the Olivet Discourse as this citation from Philip Doddridge’s (1702–1751) Family Expositor, first published in six volumes from 1739 through 1756, shows:

The particular parts of the whole discourse have been admirably illustrated by many learned commentators. Christian writers have always, with great reason, represented Josephus's History of the Jewish War, as the best commentary on this chapter, (Matt. xxiv.) and many have justly remarked it, as a wonderful instance of the care of Providence for the Christian church, that he, an eye witness, and in these things of so great credit, should (especially in such an extraordinary manner) be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of important facts, which so exactly illustrate this noble prophecy in almost every circumstance.[9]

In the Preface to the 1785 Maynard Edition of The Whole Genuine and Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, the following comment is made by the translator George Henry Maynard:

The Works of Josephus have ever been held by the pious and learned of all ages in the highest veneration, from their acknowledged tendency to elucidate the sacred records in particular, and promote the acquisition of History in general.[10]

The works of Josephus find a key place among Bible commentators and Christian historians. William Wotton (1666–1727) says of Josephus, “He is certainly an author very justly to be valued, notwithstanding all his faults. His history of the Jewish war is a noble demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion: by showing, in the most lively manner, how the prophecies of our blessed Lord, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, were literally fulfilled in their fullest extent.”[11]

Archbishop John Tillotson (1630–1694) delivered several sermons under the title “The Evidences of the Truth of the Christian Religion” in which he expounded on the remarkable fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem based on the Olivet Discourse.

After devoting a considerable amount of space to the biblical material found in the three gospel accounts of the Olivet Discourse, Tillotson adds to the biblical evidence by referencing Josephus:

Not only those who lived in that Age were capable of Satisfaction concerning the Accomplishment of this Prediction of our Saviour; but that we also might receive full Satisfaction concerning this, the Providence of God hath so order’d it, as to preserve to us a more punctual credible History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, than there is of any mother Matter whatsoever so long since done.

And this is more considerable, than possible at first we may imagine, For,

  1. “We have this Matter related, not by a Christian, (who might be suspected of Partiality and a Design to have parallel’d the Event with our Saviour’s prediction,) but by a Jew, both by Nation and Rreligion, who seems designedly to have avoided, as much as possibly he could, the very mention of the Christian Name, and all particulars relating to our Saviour, though no Historian was ever more punctual in other things.”
  2. We have this Matter related by one that was an Eye-witness of all those sad Calamities that befell the Nation of the Jews, and during the War in Galilee against Vespasian, was one of their Chief Commanders, and being taken by the Romans, was in their Camp all the time that Jerusalem was besieged.
  3. As he was an Eye-witness, and so able to give the truest Account of those Matters, so hath he always had the Repute of a most faithfull Historian. . . .
  4. There is no ancient History extant, that relates any Matter with so much particularity of circumstances, as Josephus does this of the Jewish Wars, especially the Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem.
  5. That the Providence of God may appear the more remarkable in this History, which is the only punctual one that hath been preserved down to us of this great Action, it will be worth our Observation to consider, how remarkably this Person was preserved for the writing of this History.[12]

Similar to this is the testimony of M. Tillemont.

God has been pleased to choose for our information in this history, not an apostle, nor any of the chief men of the church, but an obstinate Jew, whom neither the view of the virtue and miracles of the Christians, nor the knowledge of the law, nor the ruin of his religion and country, could induce to believe in and love the Messiah, who was all the expectation of the nation. God has permitted it so to be, that the testimony which this historian gave to an event, of which he did not comprehend the mystery, might not be rejected either by Jews or Heathens: and that none might be able to say, that he had altered the truth of things to favour Jesus Christ and his disciples.[13]

Even earlier (firth century) we find the comments of Isidore of Pelusium:

If you have a mind to know what punishment the wicked Jews underwent, who ill-treated the Christ, read the history of their destruction, writ by Josephus, a Jew indeed, but a lover or truth, that you may see the wonderful story, such as no time ever saw before since the beginning of the world, nor ever shall  be.   For that none might refuse to give credit to the history of their incredible and unparalleled sufferings, truth found out not a stranger, but a native, and a man fond of their institutions, to relate them in a doleful strain.[14]

Joseph Sievers, writing for the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Italy, states the following:

During the Middle Ages, Josephus was the most widely read ancient author in Europe. Schreckenberg, here following Eisler, states that Josephus’ literary influence had no equals, with the sole exception of the Bible.Over 130 Greek and about 230 Latin [manuscripts], and innumerable citations in later authors are telling signs of a broad interest in his works. There is also a large number of early prints of Josephus’ works. Between 1470 and 1535 there were over twenty printings of Latin translations of Josephus.[15]

I’ve only touched the surface of this topic. I have only been limited by time and access to a seminary library.

James Hamilton’s claim that preterism would not exist if preterists did not have the works of Josephus is an opinion with no historical substance. Preterist interpretations of the Olivet Discourse begin with the text of Scripture as I demonstrated in my Symposium presenation. Josephus is a helpful secondary, although not inspired, historical source. Even so, the history of the church shows that the works of Josephus were consulted regularly and not just by preterists. As we saw earlier in this chapter, even James Hamilton appealed to Josephus as a historical source.

[1]Heinz Schreckenberg and Kurt Schubert, Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early Medieval Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 41.

[2]Eating of children.

[3]Schreckenberg and Schubert, Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early Medieval Christianity, 132.

[4]Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 2.

[5]Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick, eds., Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 19–20.

[6]John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1976).

[7]Eric Rauch, Publisher’s Foreword, Alexander Keith, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion: Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy (White Hall, WV: Tolle Lege Press, [1834] 2011), v.

[8]Edward Giddings, American Christian Rulers, or Religion and Men of Government (New York: Bromfield and Company, 1889), 332. American Christian Rulers was reprinted by American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, in 2011. The corresponding page number in the new edition is 348.

[9]Philip Doddridge, The Family Expositor; or, A Paraphrase and Version of the New Testament; with Critical Notes and A Practical Improvement on each Section, 6 vols. 8th London ed. (Charlestown, MA: Etheridge and Co., 1807), 2:360, note e.

[10]London: Printed for J. Cooke, 1785.

[11]William Wotton, Preface, Miscellaneous Discourses Relating to the Traditions and Usages of the Scribes and Pharisees in our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ's Time (London: Printed by W. Bowyer for Tim. Goodwin, 1718), 49.

[12]John Tillotson, “The Evidences of the Truth of the Christian Religion,” The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (London: Printed for Benjamin and Samuel Tooke, et al., 1732), 2:563–564. Sermon 186.

[13]Sébastien LeNain de Tillemont, Qui comprend la ruine des Juifs [Which includes the Destruction of the Jews] (1692), Art, I. p. 722.

[14]Samuel Burder, Editor’s Preface (1811), The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, 4 vols. (New York: William Borradaile, 1823), 1:vii. Also see H. Schreckenberg and K. Schubert, Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Pub (1992), 79–80.

[15]Joseph Sievers, “New Resources for the Study of Josephus” (2000):

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