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Josephus and Jesus: The Early Christian Movement

Paula Fredriksen

Priest, Pharisee, prophet, military leader, war captive, historian: Josephus. Josephus aids us, in crucial ways, in our quest for the assembly of Jesus’ earliest followers in Jerusalem. Indeed, for almost three decades, in this holy city, he and they would have been neighbors.

Yosef ben Mattityahu was born into an aristocratic priestly family in Jerusalem only a few years after Jesus had died there. His father would have served in the temple under Caiaphas, the high priest in office when Jesus was crucified. As a young man, Josephus likewise served in the temple. He was acquainted with those various “sects” or “schools” that shaped late Second Temple Judaism: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots. He knew or knew of charismatic ascetics, wandering prophets, and various wonder workers. Among these he numbered John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth. He also knew about the community that had formed around Jesus’ message and memory after his death. And Josephus played a major role in the catastrophe that brought about the end of that community and of the city and the temple that he had loved: Josephus fought in and lived through his people’s war against Rome, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem.

It is thanks to his survival that we have those writings that give us such unparalleled access to this period: the Jewish War . . ., a history of the conflict, composed shortly after the event; and the Antiquities of the Jews . . ., a much larger and more ambitious history that begins with Genesis and ends with Josephus’ own day. The former general, war captive and slave passed the second half of his life in Rome as Flavius Josephus, allied to and supported by the household of the very same imperial family that had led the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Whatever he says about his own people in the period leading up to the War, and just like (as we shall see) the New Testament’s evangelists, who were his contemporaries, Josephus says from his postwar perspective.

Josephus helps us to understand the context of this conflict, and the role played by the prophecy that led up to it. He orients us in the War’s prehistory. He lets us see the centuries of stable government that developed in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (586–533 B.C.E.), once the exiles returned to the city and aristocratic priests coordinated with imperial governors to rule Judea. He leads us through the clashes between Alexander the Great’s successors, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria, and their messy and conflicting alliances with Jerusalem’s priestly rulers (after 323 B.C.E.). His account augments the stories in the books of the Maccabees, when the Hasmonean family attained Jewish independence, eventually serving both as high priests and, later, as kings (167–140 B.C.E.). He narrates both the tyranny and the towering achievements of Herod the Great, King of the Jews (who ruled from 37 to 4 B.C.E.).

But most importantly for us, Josephus traces the uneasy relationships, post- Herod, between Jerusalem’s chief priests and Rome. He recounts the fatal clashes of Roman prefects and procurators with popular Jewish prophets and militants. He describes the vibrant instability of the city, swollen with pilgrims during the Jewish high holidays, “when sedition is most likely to break out.” And finally, he points out the key role played by a messianic prophecy—“their chief inducement for going to war,” as he says of his countrymen—in the outbreak of the conflict. Among those Jews holding such hopes, awaiting the establishment of God’s Kingdom, expecting the glorious second coming of their messiah, were the men and women of Jesus’ community gathered in Jerusalem.

From When Christians Were Jews by Paula Fredriksen. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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