messiah that, josephus!

December 12, 2004 | 5 Comments

Josephus has been a friend, of sorts, of Christians for centuries. His historical writings of first century Judea have provided us a wealth of information to help us frame the world in which Jesus did his ministry, and even to confirm some of the events mentioned in the Gospels.

A year or so ago, I ran across something about Josephus that is not quite so popular with Christians. Josephus also believed that the Jewish Messiah had appeared in the first century, but he didn’t believe it was Jesus. He believed that the Roman emperor Vespasian was the messiah that the Jews had longed to see for so long. Of course, the fact that Josephus was essentially on the payroll of Titus, the son of Vespasian and the Roman emperor who followed him, might have had a bit to do with his conclusion.

Now, as we approach the Christmas season, some study I’ve done on the Christmas story has recalled some of those thoughts about Josephus’ unconventional thinking. I’ll bring it all back, I promise, but let me go off on a bit of a tangent…

First of all, take a look at the following quote. This was an inscription dated 9BCE that was written about Augustus, who was Caesar at the time (I’ve bolded a few things for emphasis):

The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura;…All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who proceeded him…and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].

This was common language about the caesars, and certainly was not exclusive to this one inscription. That alone might mess with your brain some, but now consider what Luke wrote about the Christmas story in Luke 2 (again, I’ve bolded some things for emphasis):

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Much of what Luke has to say about the birth of Jesus is the exact same kind of language that was used to describe Augustus and the later Caesars! (There is so much more that could be developed regarding some of the parallels of Jesus’ birth and those of the Caesars, but I’ll spare you before I completely lose your interest.) Often, when this passage is taught, much is made of the Jewish prophecies that are aluded to within it. Those are significant, but as we can see, there is not only Jewish language used in this story, but also language that would have been significant to all those in the Roman world.

Now, back to Josephus. Many scholars date the writing of Luke’s gospel, which he was writing to the Roman world, in the late 70s or early 80s. This is also the same timeframe Josephus would have made his claim that Vespasian (who was already dead by the way) was the Messiah. Could it be that Luke was aware of what Josephus had written and is clearly trying to point out that the one true Messiah had already been born decades ago, and continued to rule his new kingdom even then?

Perhaps someone can shoot down my hypothesis about Josephus and Luke. Or perhaps someone else had already made this claim and, in my ignorance, I just haven’t read it. Ultimately, none of that matters, but here is what does: There is one true King and Caesar who was born into this world, and we still celebrate his birth as truly good news! I pray that, during this Christmas season, you will remember the one true Savior has come, and celebrate life within His Kingdom.

  • This is good historical digging. There is very likely to be a connection between the kind of language used to describe the Caesars and that used for Jesus in the New Testament. The difficulty is not with establishing correlation but with being certain of causation. The temptation is to see the Romans doing their thing in isolation and seeing Christianity and Judaism as borrowing and reacting. But it’s not just that the Christians were making political claims, it’s also beyond dispute that the politicians were making religious claims and these claims were probably deliberately inclusive of exotic, eastern religious traditions. Way before the gospels or the epistles were written, before Jesus was born, the coins of the empire were using the word “Saviour” of the emperor. Remember the coin that Jesus asked to have as a prop for his “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” routine? It was probably inscribed “Tiberias Caesar, son of the divine Augustus”. Son of the divine! If Jesus was who we think he is, the Christians would have had to go out of their way not to use similar language.

    Given the widespread nature of Roman propaganda, it becomes very hard to establish any necessary or definite link with Josephus. Luke was a Gentile writer and some of us believe that he was writing for Gentile readers. It seems much more likely that he would replying to Roman propaganda directly rather than replying to Josephus.

    It’s probably just as likely that Josephus, who knows of both John the Baptist and of Jesus, is replying to Christian claims about Jesus in a way calculated to show the non-Christian Jews as good citizens of the Empire and the Christians as those making anti-Roman claims.

    Here’s the payoff: For the case about Luke responding to Josephus to be persuasive, you would want to demonstrate several passages where Luke echoes things in Josephus that are unique to Josephus (as far as we know). These connections could take the form of exact verbal parallels or of collocation of ideas. The key thing is the more unusual in the literature and numerous the points of contact are, the more likely that Luke and Josephus are directly connected.

    Stephen Mason is probably the top guy on this stuff just now; he’s written a lot on Josephus. the book I’d start with is his 1992 book for Hendrickson publishers, Josephus and the New Testament.

  • jamie

    John, that is so strange that you are the second person I have heard comparing the evangelion of Caesar with the evangelion of Christ in the same week. It was this guy I just met who is a home church planter named Doug, lives in CO–check him out at http://www.miunow.com

  • Conrad,
    Thanks for all the thoughts you’ve shared.

    Jamie,
    As Conrad noted above, there is lots of information available out there regarding the us of Caesar language in connection with Jesus. It absolutely fascinates me…

  • Gary

    Mind blowing… Conrad…whoa