We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy [1 John 1:1-4 (NLT)]
“The luckiest traitor ever,” are the words historian Mary Beard used to describe Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish general who ended up allying himself with the Romans—the very people who destroyed his homeland and demolished the Temple during the Great Revolt (66-70 AD). Born in 37 AD, Josephus grew up in Jerusalem and studied with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes before serving as a general during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. According to Josephus, when fleeing the Roman army, he led his troop of 40 men into a cave. Rather than surrender, they agreed to commit suicide and drew lots to determine the order in which they would die. Either Josephus was incredibly lucky or he’d fixed the lottery but, when only he and another man remained, he convinced him to join in surrender to the Romans. In support of his story, excavations at Jotapata in the 1990s revealed the remains of 30 to 40 men assumed to have been Josephus’ men.
As an enemy general, Josephus was taken to the Roman general Vespasian. Presenting himself as a prophet, he used Balaam’s Messianic prophecy [Numbers 24:17] to predict that Vespasian would become emperor (which he did two years later). Shrewdly, Josephus then allied himself with the Romans by advising and translating for Vespasian and his son Titus.
Following the Judean war, Josephus returned to Rome with the victorious Titus where he was provided with an apartment in Vespasian’s house, given an annual pension, and made a Roman citizen. Josephus volunteered to write a history of the war for the Romans, The Jewish War, that provides an eye-witness account of the Great Revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His second work was a twenty-volume Jewish history called Jewish Antiquities.
In his Antiquities, Josephus wrote of Herod’s fear of, “John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” [18:5] Josephus also made the earliest existing non-Christian referral to Christ. Since many scholars believe Christian copyists later may have added to Josephus’ words by calling Jesus the Messiah and mentioning his resurrection, I am only including what is believed by most to have been the ancient historian’s original account, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” [18:63-64]
Josephus also reported the trial and death in 62 AD of James: “But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent … assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” [20:9.1]
The Bible doesn’t require outside sources to prove its truth and, as followers of Christ, we don’t need an ancient Jewish historian to tell us that Jesus actually existed. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that it isn’t just believers like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter who attest to His existence. We have Josephus’s account along with the Greek historian Thallus who wrote of the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, Pliny the Younger who wrote of dealing with Christians who sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god,” Tacitus who wrote of the “pernicious superstition” (Christ’s resurrection) that broke out in Judea following Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Greek historian Mara bar Serapion, who referred to Jesus as the “wise king” of the Jews.