3 Steps For Contextualizing the New Testament: Josephus as a Starting Point

Author: John D. Barry

Flavius Josephus (ca. 37–100 AD), a Jewish historian who worked for Rome, wrote some of the most important sources for contextualizing the New Testament. Anyone who wants to understand the New Testament on its own terms cannot afford to ignore his writings.

Josephus has been my friend since I was a teenager. (Yep, I toted Josephus around in high school.) You have likely heard the name, but what did this Josephus guy really say? We don’t want to trust sources like the (ah hum) History Channel on Josephus. I’ve watched more than one show that tries to make him look like an inept historian. It’s far better to look at what he says on your own. For example, when we read his Antiquities (Books 18–20), we gain critical context for interpreting Jesus’ dialogues, as well as the cultural and political norms of the period. All of that is at our fingertips, courtesy of the work of scholars who have translated Josephus. Here are three steps for getting into Josephus’ works.

1. Read Josephus on New Testament Characters

The great Jewish historian explicitly writes about Jesus (Antiquities 18.3.2), John the Baptist (Antiquities 18.5.2), and Jesus’ brother, James (Antiquities 20.9.1). Open Whiston’s translation of Josephus, and check out what he says. It’s fascinating.

Mason’s Josephus and the New Testament is a convenient guide on our journey. Mason provides citations from Josephus and some commentary on what Josephus said, including specific religious and political groups.

2. Check out Josephus on Religious Leaders

Josephus had a lot to say about the Pharisees and the Sadducees. You can find references to religious groups by looking up their names in the index in the back of Whiston’s translation or searching for them in the translation using Bible software. For example, in one of his works called Jewish Wars, Josephus notes that “the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws” (Jewish Wars 2.8.14).

The Pharisees’ love of the finite points of the Law (and their own laws) explains why their dialogues with Jesus feel like an episode of Jeopardy. For example, they ask, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt 19:3 ESV). You can almost see Alex Trebek in a robe with a phylactery tied around his forehead, waiting for the answer. Jesus gives them an answer that is neither anticipated nor desired, condemning them for their love of laws and piety over justice (e.g., Luke 11:37–52).

3. Look at Josephus on Galilee and Its Rulers

While we’re familiar with Jesus’ religious conflicts, Josephus recorded a lot of information on the political strife surrounding Him on any given day. Look up “Galilee,” “Pilate,” and “Herod” in Whiston’s index or run a search for these terms in Bible software. The results of our research teach us that the Jews were highly persecuted in the years just prior to Jesus’ birth. And the Jewish rulers were part of the problem during Jesus’ lifetime (Antiquities 18.3.1–5). Pontius Pilate was using sacred Jewish money to do work that benefited the Jews, but it was mainly to make the Roman authorities happy.

This didn’t go over well, and there was a Jewish revolt against Rome to which Josephus was an eyewitness (Antiquities 18.3.2). Instead of protecting the interests of the native Jewish population, Herod the Great was more concerned about naming building projects after his Roman buddies (Antiquities 18.4.3). In this region led by greedy scoundrels claiming political authority for Rome, Jesus claimed religious authority by heavenly approval (John 19:11) as the true king of the Jews (Matt 2:2; compare 27:11).

We know from the New Testament that this kind of challenge to authority wasn’t overlooked by the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herod or the Romans. But it is Josephus who helps us clearly comprehend why the powers that be were motivated to eliminate Jesus at any cost.

NOTE: This authenticity of Antiquities 18.3.2 is still a debated point. Mason in Josephus and the New Testament discusses this.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 1.