Josephus And The New Testament

When the Revelation is read next to Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, it becomes clear that Revelation is describing, among other things, the destruction of Jerusalem, as described by Josephus.  Everything from the number 666 (Rev. 13:18), which is code for the Hebrew spelling of Nero’s name, to themes of “purple and scarlet” (Rev 17:4, Wars v.4), an allusion to decorations inside the Temple, John’s Apocalypse poetically describes, among other things, Nero and Vespasian’s war against the Jews in the late 60s and early 70s, and the “woe” it brought to Jerusalem.

From the first words of the “authentic” Revelation (mostly after 4:1), we see what would have been obvious references to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

For example, Revelation says

…and he that sat was to look upon like a jasper stone and a sardius; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald…

Any Josephus reader of the day would have recognized Revelation’s similarity to Josephus’ description of the temple:

…on the other part there hung twelve stones, three in a row one way, and four in the other; a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald; a carbuncle, a jasper, and a saphire…

References to these stones come again in Revelation 21:19-21:

The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby,the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.[a] 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

Revelation gives prophesy in response to its lament for the destroyed temple, a city and people decimated, and a faith upended by the power of the Roman machine.

An interesting allusion to the Jewish-Roman war comes in Revelation 16:21

And great hail, every *stone about the weight of a talent*, cometh down out of heaven upon men: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof is exceeding great

Compare Revelation’s reference to the talent-sized stones raining down on the earth to Josephus’ description of Vespasian’s conquest in Wars of the Jews:

Vespasian then set the engines [seige machines] for throwing stones and darts round about the city…and *stones of the weight of a talent* were thrown by the engines that were prepared for that purpose…

chart-siege-engineThe Gospel of Mark borrows from this same Josephus work by making reference to Josephus’ anecdote about Jesus ben Ananias, a prophet who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem prior to (and during) the war between Rome and the Jews. Jesus “gave up the ghost” in Mark 15:37, a sure reference to Mark’s adoptionism agenda.  Consider the parallel in Josephus, where Jesus ben Ananias was killed by one of those talent-sized stones:

…And just as [Jesus ben Ananias] added at the last, “Woe, woe to myself also!” there came a stone out of one of the engines, and smote him, and killed him immediately; and as he was uttering the very same presages he gave up the ghost.

There are also indirect references the Gospel of Mark makes to Josephus’ Jesus ben Ananias.  For instance, Mark 5:3-5 describes a mad man who was often chained:

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

Compare Mark’s demon-possessed man to Jesus ben Ananias’ imprisonment under Judean governor Albinus:

Hereupon our rulers, supposing, as the case proved to be, that this was a sort of divine fury in the man, brought him to the Roman procurator, where he was whipped till his bones were laid bare; yet he did not make any supplication for himself, nor shed any tears, but turning his voice to the most lamentable tone possible, at every stroke of the whip his answer was, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” And when Albinus (for he was then our procurator) asked him, Who he was? and whence he came? and why he uttered such words? he made no manner of reply to what he said, but still did not leave off his melancholy ditty, till *Albinus took him to be a madman*, and dismissed him.

Why Jesus ben Ananias?

One can only speculate the Mark’s author’s motivation for why he chose Jesus ben Ananias as the model for Jesus Christ on Earth.  Perhaps it was because Jesus ben Ananias was an obvious (and probably famous) victim of Vespasian’s attack.  It could also be that Jesus ben Ananias seemed a vehicle for a message which was delivered by some entity outside of him, described through Josephus’ pen.  In that sense, the spirit which Jesus ben Ananias hosted might have been the same spirit which early (Mark-consuming) Christians believed had entered Jesus Christ following his baptism.

Jesus ben Ananias predicted the fall of Jerusalem and was killed by the “great hail” of talent-sized stones (a talent was a unit of measurement – a Roman talent was the equivalent of 71 pounds or 32.3kg) as described in Revelation 16:21. Had Jesus ben Ananias been incorrect about the temple’s destruction, a reader might chalk it up to just another case of untreated mental illness in the 1st century; however, the fact that Jesus ben Ananias’ prophesy was correct probably resonated with readers, and the unshakable zeal with which he delivered his message probably meant (for true believers) he was a messenger for God – an Earthly Gabriel.

There are other allusions to the temple’s destruction in the Gospel of Mark, notably Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, which has Jesus withering the barren tree which no longer bore fruit (even though figs were out-of-season) – this seems a likely reference to the temple (and of course this is a multi-layered allusion as there are several references to fig trees in the Old Testament, notably 1 Kings 4:25 and Isaiah 9:10 and 34:4).  While it stood, the temple functioned as an atonement centerpiece for Jews; the metaphor was that the temple no longer bore fruit, and therefore, new atonement rituals were necessary.  Or perhaps the temple never bore fruit, as the earliest Christians, as evidenced by Revelation 12:1 and the woman clothed in the sun, sought a return to 1st temple religious practices, such as the burning of incense for the Queen of Heaven; the statue of Asherah in Solomon’s temple, prior to Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform in the 7th century BCE, was fashioned as the tree of life; therefore, the fig tree would have been an inferior tree to the first temple’s tree.

Using Josephus as a decoding tool, one attractive speculation is that the name Judas was selected as Jesus’ antagonist because Judas of Galilee, the radical who led a revolt against Roman taxes, founded (or gave rise to) a sect, later called the Zealots.  Josephus blamed the Zealots for the Jewish-Roman war.  In other words, it was Judas who betrayed Jesus…some 60 years earlier.  This link becomes even more intriguing when one considers the possibility that Iscariot is a reconstructed form of the term Sicarii, a radical splinter group of the Zealots.

Last Update: 2017.02.08

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

8 thoughts on “Josephus And The New Testament”

  1. Tim, refresh my memory, when was the great purge of early Christian documents conducted? I know very little about it, but remember reading/hearing about it. This kull might well fit in well with what you’re developing. It would certianly show intent.

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    1. Hypatia of Alexandria was killed, and the library was burned in 415. Some people are skeptical of the claim that there was a concerted towards a “great purge,” and honestly, I don’t know if such a thing happened to contribute to erasing Marcion and Cerinthus from Christian history…it seems like that effort was underway certainly by the 180s, and maybe even the 150s or 160s (my suspicion is that the Acts of John was one of the first attempts to do that…also the Acts of the Apostles).

      One of the details that may be contributing to the loss of this history is that writers intentionally disguised who they were, and pretended to be someone else, and the ratio of fake-to-authentic in early Christian texts is at least 10:1…honestly, I’m not sure if any of these texts were written by the person who claimed them. I think there’s a chance Marcion contributed to Mark, and his student, Lucan, contributed to Luke, but other than that, who knows?

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  2. I do think that Revelation is the last book of the NT to appear in the historical record. I think Mythicist Milwaukee posted before that some Church Fathers and Bishops consider Revelation to be heretical. I do agree that all the talk of the end times tribulations is an post description of Jerusalem siege in 70 AD/CE and possibly an expanded versions of Matthew 28:20, Matthew 24:1-51. Oddly enough, both 28:20 and 24:3 used the phrase “…end of the age….” though some versions mistranslate it as “end of the world”. If Jesus truly meant end of the world, he should’ve used the word “κοσμος/Strong’s G2889” instead of “αιωνοσ/Strong’s G165” meaning a period of time. I guess the hypothesis that Revelation is a rework of Cerinthus is correct plus Josephus’s Jewish War plus pre-Christian pagan prophecies plus OT prophecies plus NT rehashes.

    Bob Price’s Human Bible episodes on Revelation episode 18: https://itunes.apple.com/ph/podcast/episode-018/id506886767?i=1000124874709&mt=2 and episode 35: https://itunes.apple.com/ph/podcast/episode-035/id506886767?i=1000319859369&mt=2

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