|New Testament Parallels
to the Works of Josephus
G J Goldberg
In this article I present a list of these New Testament references and
place them next to extracts from the works of Josephus (About the
Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities) on the same subject. To
these I have added my own comments, which I hope the reader will find
The New Testament makes references to rulers, priests, religious
factions, and politics that would be completely mysterious to modern
readers if it were not for the works of Josephus. When one reads
discussions about the historical Jesus and the early days of
Christianity, most of the Judean social background and the dating of
events derive from his books.
Interested readers will want to study Josephus themselves for fuller
extracts. They will also want to read some of the many scholarly works
on this subject. An excellent place to start is Steve Mason's
Josephus and the New Testament, which discusses more fully the
parallels and provides many original observations and analyses.
The Gospel of Luke/The Book of Acts
It is Luke's writings, both the Gospel and the Book of Acts, that
have the most points of contact with Josephus, particularly the
Antiquities. Most notable are the numerous references in Luke to
events and persons that are also discussed, and are explained more fully,
by Josephus. Luke is clearly concerned with embedding the story of Jesus
in a firm historical context, thus helping not only to date the story but
also to persuade the reader of its genuineness.
More subtly, the vocabulary of Luke/Acts bears a greater resemblance
to Josephus than does any other work in the New Testament (as Steve
Mason has pointed out). A study of each author's style seems to indicate
that they at least learned Greek from teachers with similar backgrounds.
These connections have raised some possibilities that have been the
focus of much attention by scholars. The weightiest question has been,
"Did Luke read Josephus' Antiquities and use it as the basis for the
historical references in his work?" Did Luke, perhaps, even know
Josephus in Rome, as Thackeray suggested? But there are discrepancies
between Luke and Josephus - particularly the census of Quirinius - which
suggest Luke used a different source. Was he perhaps genuinely handing
down the traditions of some of those who knew Jesus?
And the similarities of language - do they imply the two authors
wrote in a similar place at a similar time?
The answer to these questions would help to tell us how and when Luke
composed his works. If Luke read Josephus' Antiquities, he could
not have written his gospel before the 80s, when the Antiquities
was a work in progress, or the early 90s, when it was published. The
same conclusion can be drawn from language similarities. This happens to
agree with the dating of Luke most often surmised by scholars; but some
think he wrote much earlier, in the 50s and 60s for Acts and perhaps
much earlier for the gospel, while others argue that Luke is a very late
writer, circa 120.
A reliance on the Antiquities would suggest also that Luke's gospel
is not constructed solely of authentic reports about Jesus from the
apostles and others who knew him. It would mean Luke combined some
information from original Christian sources with other materials. It
would thus be left to readers to determine which is which.
In the days of King Herod of Judea...
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child
who has been born king of the Jews?"
Antiquities 17.7.1 191 (War 1.31.8 665)
Having done these things he died, on the fifth day after having his
son Antipater killed, having reigned since he had slain Antigonus
thirty-four years, and thirty-seven years since he had been declared
king by the Romans.
From this reference in Josephus we know that Herod the Great died in 4BCE.
Herod's reign began under appointment by Marc Antony in 40BCE,
a date known from Antiquities 14.14.4 386:
So did Herod take the throne, receiving it in
the hundred and eight-fourth Olympiad, the consuls being Gnaeus
Domitius Calvinus, for the second time, and Gaius Asinius Pollio."
The event is also described by Roman
historians. Properly taking into account Josephus' use of partial years
when subtracting his stated 37 years gives 4BCE
for the end of Herod's reign (see the note to War 1.665 in the
Thus, according to Matthew and Luke, Jesus could not have been born
later than 4BCE. Yet our
calendar is numbered taking the year 1 AD (= 1) as the year of Jesus'
birth, leading to the puzzle of Jesus having been born in 4BCE,
4 years "Before Christ". This is due to a mistake in calculation by the
Roman abbot Dionysus Exiguus in 533, who first began counting years from
Jesus' birth. (some say he did not count the first four years of Emperor
Augustus, who used his original name of Octavian during this time). As a
practical matter, it is worth noting that our calendar does not in fact
count from the birth year of Jesus, which is unknown, but from the year
of Herod's death.
The Slaughter of the Innocents:
...wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child
who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its
rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he
was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the
chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the
Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In the Bethlehem of Judea, for
so it is written by the prophet ... When Herod saw that he had been
tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all
the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,
according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Antiquities 17.2.4 43 (Speculative)
Now there was a certain sect of Jews who valued themselves highly for
the skill they had in the ways of their fathers and who believed they
best observed the laws favored by God - the sect called the Pharisees -
by whom the women of the palace were guided. They were fully able to
deal successfully with the king due to their prescience, but often fell
into fighting and setting up obstacles to him.
For example, when all the Jewish people pledged their loyalty to
Caesar and to the king's government, these men, over six thousand of
them, refused to swear. When the king therefore imposed a fine on them,
the wife of Pheroras [the king's brother] paid it. Now to repay this
kindness of hers, being believed to have, by Divine inspiration, the
foreknowledge of things to come, they foretold that God had decreed that
Herod's government would be taken from him and from his descendants, and
that the kingdom would come to her and Pheroras and to their children.
These predictions, which did not escape detection by Salome [the
king's sister], were reported to the king, and also that they had
subverted some others of the palace. So the king killed those of the
Pharisees principally involved, as well as Bagoas the eunuch, and a
certain Karos, who exceeded all of his peers in beauty and was his
favorite boy. He also killed everyone of his own house who had allied
themselves to the talk of the Pharisees. Bagoas had been elated by their
prediction that he would be hailed as the father and the benefactor of
the one who would be their appointed king; for to this king would fall
power over all things, and he would provide Bagoas with a marriage and
the ability to sire children of his own line.
There is no story in Josephus matching the nativity stories of Luke
and Matthew. But the passage quoted above has some interesting
similarities. Here we have wise men, believed to have the gift of
prophecy, predicting the next king will end Herod's reign, frightening
Herod into committing mass murder. The new king will have "the power over
all things." There would be a miraculous birth by someone for whom it is
impossible to have children - in the gospels, the virgin Mary, in the
above tale, the eunuch Bagoas.
The story demonstrates at the least that the actions of Herod and the
other people in the nativity story was not unheard of for the time, so
that something of the sort might have occurred but escaped Josephus'
notice. Or, the above story itself might have served as the nucleus of a
tale that was elaborated over the years and applied to Jesus by his
Incidentally, in Antiquities 17.6.5 174 there is described a
forced mass movement of people just before Herod's death. The king had
planned to have these murdered so that the Jews would be mourning when
he died, rather than holding joyful festivities to celebrate his
passing. This movement could conceivably have contributed both to the
story of the slaughter of the innocents and the census of Quirinius (see
But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of
his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
Antiquities 17.8.1 188
Then because of the change of mind Herod had undergone, he once more
altered his will and designated Antipas, to whom he had previously left
his throne, to be Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, while he bestowed the
kingdom on Archelaus.
The Census of Quirinius:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world
should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken
while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be
registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to
Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem.
Antiquities 18.1.1 1
Quirinius, a Roman senator who had passed through all the other
magistracies until he became consul, and who in other respects was very
distinguished, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, having
been sent by Caesar to be governor of that nation and to make an
assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of the equestrian order,
was sent with him to have supreme authority over the Jews. Quirinius
came himself to Judea, which had now been added to the province of
Syria, to make an assessment of their property and to dispose of
Archelaus's estate. Although the Jews at first took the report of a
taxation angrily, they gradually left off any further opposition to it
by the persuasion of the high priest Joazar son of Boethus. Persuaded by
Joazar's words, they gave an account of their estates without any
But there was one man, Judas, a Gaulanite from a city named Gamala,
who, taking with him Saddok, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to
revolt. They both said that this taxation was no better than an
introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty
The discrepancy between Luke and Josephus on this famous registration,
or assessment, has caused many scholarly attempts to reconcile the two.
None of these attempts have been accepted as successful. Josephus' story,
which is supported by various evidence in Roman historians, clearly places
Quirinius' beginning tenure and assessment in the year 6, ten years after
the death of Herod the Great. Yet Luke places this event during the time
of Herod. From everything we know, Luke is mistaken.
Then where did Luke find this story? The theory
that Luke used Josephus for historical events has difficulty dealing
with this discrepancy. Thus it is either proof that Luke worked from a
poor summary, or preliminary version, of the Antiquities, or that
he had a separate source, possibly an oral tradition among some of the
Jesus followers who were not consulted by the other gospel writers.
There is also a peculiar way to look at this
story (original with myself, for good or ill). The census of Quirinius
was the immediate cause of the rise of Judas the Galilean and the Fourth
Philosophy. This philosophy would, sixty years later, lead to the war
with Rome that would destroy the Temple and weaken the attraction of
Judaism that many non-Jews had throughout the empire. It also
contributed to the suspicion the authorities had of popular leaders, in
particular those with new philosophies and origins in Galilee, and so
quite likely was an important factor in Jesus' arrest.
In some sense, then, the census of Quirinius
gave birth to the "spirit of the revolution" and the destruction of the
Temple. Could it be that certain revolutionaries saw Jesus as their
hoped-for leader, and even after his death felt he was the mystical
embodiment of the spirit of the revolution? Then the association of
Jesus' birth with the birth of the Fourth Philosophy would have come
naturally to this strand of the Jesus followers.
Jesus at Twelve:
And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival
[of Passover]....After three days they found him in the temple, sitting
among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all
who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Josephus' Life 1.2 8 (speculative)
I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and
appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I
was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for
the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and
principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order
to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the
This parallel is one I have not seen pointed out before. Both passages
probably refer to a demonstration of a boy's learning around the time of
his bar mitzvah, which in modern tradition takes place when he
turns thirteen. Here Josephus speaks of "about fourteen years of age"
and Jesus is said to be twelve (thus going on thirteen). So both
passages may simply be conventional boasts drawn from the memories of
the proud Jewish parents.
But there is an odder similarity: both passages
imply that the scholars of Jerusalem actually learned things from the
boys. This is an extraordinary boast. Was this also part of traditional
bar mitzvah kvelling of the time?
The Fifteenth Year of Tiberius (Pilate, Herod, Philip, "Lysanius",
Annas, and Caiaphas):
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius
Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his
brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and
Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and
Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the
Antiquities 18.2.2 35
Tiberius sent Gratus to be procurator of Judea. This man deprived
Ananus of the high priesthood, and appointed Ismael ... Joseph called
Caiaphus was made his successor. When Gratus had done those things, he
went back to Rome, having tarried in Judea eleven years, and Pontius
Pilate came as his successor.
War 2.6.3 94 (Antiquities 17.11.4 318)
Caesar ... gave one-half of Herod's kingdom to Archelaus with the title
of Ethnarch, and promised to make him king also afterward, if he
rendered himself worthy of that dignity. But he divided the other half
into two tetrarchies, and gave them to two other sons of Herod, the one
of them to Philip, and the other to that Antipas who contested the
kingdom with Archelaus. Placed under Antipas were Perea and Galilee,
with a revenue of two hundred talents. Batanea, Trachonitis, and
Auranitis, and certain parts of Zeno's house about Jamnia, providing a
revenue of 100 talents, were made subject to Philip.
Antiquities 20.7.1 137 Claudius bestowed upon Agrippa ...
Abila, which had been the tetrarchy of Lysanius.
These establish the year of the appearance of
John the Baptist, and hence of the subsequent public career of Jesus.
The 15th year of Tiberius was 28/29, as he reigned for 22 years and some
5 or 6 months, from 14-37. Pontius Pilate was procurator from 26-36, and
Caiaphas was high priest over almost the same period, 26-35. Herod
Antipas ruled Galilee from 4BCE
to 40, and Philip his assortment of lands from 4BCE
As to "Lysanius", Luke is at variance with
Josephus. Lysanius was killed by Marc Antony during the reign of Herod
the Great. The small territory of Lysanius was leased by Zenodorus (or
"Zeno", War 1.20.4 398), and was later given by Caesar to Philip,
as quoted above in one of the passages. After Philip's death this little
region, that had belonged to Lysanius, along with other pieces of
Philip's territory, was given to Agrippa by the Emperor Claudius about
the year 40 (also cited above).
This little territory never had a name; it was
just referred to familiarly, something like "that piece of land that
used to belong to Lysanius." This is the only way Josephus refers to the
property throughout his works. There is no evidence of a ruler named
Lysanius at the time Luke speaks about. In any case, the land is two
small for anyone to bother identifying its ruler as a means of
specifying a moment in history.
Two explanations present themselves. The more
interesting of these is that Luke worked from a written source he did
not quite understand; he could have read about the time "when Herod was
tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of
Ituraea, and Trachonitis, and Abilene the tetrarchy of Lysanius." He
could have misinterpreted the last clause as identifying another ruler
of the time, rather than continuing the list of Philip's lands;
particularly if the grammar had become a little garbled in transmission,
perhaps during translation from the Aramaic. This would indicate Luke
did not know enough about Judea to recognize that the "tetrarchy of
Lysanius" was the way the local inhabitants referred to a little piece
The second, more mundane explanation is that
Luke originally wrote the version we just surmised, but his text has
become slightly corrupted during transmission to us.