Josephus was a Jew who became a leader in the Jewish rebellion of AD 69. He was captured and ended up working for the Romans as a slave translator during the siege of Jerusalem. After being defeated and humiliated by initial Jewish victories, the Romans had called old General Vespasian out of retirement to lead the army that crushed Judea. While the siege of Jerusalem was going on, word came from Rome that the Praetorian Guard had arranged a new vacancy in Rome (Emperor Vitellius had been murdered after 8 months of rule), and they wanted Vespasian to come to Rome and become Emperor. Vespasian left his son Titus in charge. Titus befriended Josephus.
When the victorious Romans evicted the Jews from Jerusalem and Titus returned to Rome in triumph, he took Josephus with him. Josephus was given Roman citizenship and a pension. In the year 79 Vespasian died and Titus became Emperor. Josephus was a friend of the Emperor; it is nice to have friends. He used his comfortable retirement to write a couple of really interesting books: Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, both of which were written in the late 70s AD. Josephus’s writings are a great source of information on first century Judaism, and he can be considered a “hostile witness” regarding Christianity.
Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War
Jewish Antiquities is a history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the Jewish War of AD 69-70, and The Jewish War is an account of that war. Antiquities is a presentation of Jewish history written so as to make the Jews appear sympathetic according to Roman sensibilities. It includes a famous but disputed note about Jesus. The passage about Jesus is the famous Testamonium Flavianum, but I do not wish to take that topic up here.
Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War also include undisputed notes about James the brother of Jesus.
James had not believed that Jesus was divine until after the Resurrection. When the risen Jesus appeared to James, he converted. Though a newcomer to the little band of followers of Jesus at the time of the Ascension, James became the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.
We learn in Jewish Antiquities that when Roman Governor Festus died in the year 62 AD, Nero named Albinus to be the new governor of Judea. The Jews used the vacancy as cover for reprisals. While waiting for Albinus to arrive, Ananas the High Priest had James killed. Josephus includes this information. (The details of the murder/execution are provided from the Christian point of view in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.)
The death of James corroborates the New Testament accounts of the deadly animosity of the Jews against Christians. This was at a time when Christians were considered a sect of Jews under Roman law. Why would the Jews take a chance on making the new incoming Governor Albinus angry? Relations with Rome were already awful. What would be so important about James that the Jewish High Priest would risk provoking Rome? Why take that chance, just to have the leader of the little band of Christians killed?
The answer is that the New Testament accounts are validated. The charge that the Jews had against Christians was blasphemy. That was a capital offense under Jewish law, but since the Romans considered that to be internal Jewish stuff, the Romans were uninterested in carrying out Jewish justice on ecclesial matters.
This account by Josephus provides corroboration of the story of Paul. Nearly 20 years earlier, he was headed from Jerusalem with a warrant from High Priest Annas (father of Ananas) to have some Christians in Damascus arrested. This was only a few months after the Resurrection. The Sanhedrin were already acting to try to stamp out Christianity, just as they had acted to have Jesus killed, and they were still fighting Christians thirty years later when they killed James. It also supports the story of the stoning of Stephen. Stephen was killed before Paul’s trip to Damascus, so that was very soon after the Resurrection.
Note that the Jewish charge of blasphemy was their justification for having Pilate approve the execution of Jesus, and it was a charge of blasphemy on the writ that Paul was carrying when he was dramatically converted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and blasphemy was the reason to kill Stephen and James. We can guess that blasphemy was also the charge when King Agrippa had James the brother of John (son of Zebedee) killed in the year 44 AD.
A charge of blasphemy can only mean that these Jewish followers of Jesus were worshipping Jesus. The claim that Jesus is G-d is at the root of this charge.
Josephus’s account of the murder of James corroborates the New Testament. Jesus was worshipped as divine very early in the Christian story, from the first days after the Resurrection. Worship of Jesus is undoubtedly the reason for charges of blasphemy.
If Pagan ideas were imported into the Christian movement, it would have had to have happened in the first year after the Resurrection, not over a period of generations. In the first year after the Resurrection, all the “Followers of the Way” of Jesus were Jews. They were not about to inform their upstart religion with Pagan ideas.
It would have been easy to go start up a Pagan sect that imported Jewish ideas, but they insisted that they were Jews, and they lived as Jews. These early Christians worshipped Jesus as elevated by G-d the Father to the Throne of Heaven as the best way to express worship of G-d the Father. They worshipped the Father and the Son together as a single expression of God, and they did not worship the Father and the Son as two gods. They rejected Pagan ideas.
This was the hard way, because they were opposed by the power structure of the Jewish world. They were repeatedly expelled from the Temple and from the synagogues. They were doggedly Jewish, and it was later, maybe ten years later, before their first big internal dispute arose, which was over how to deal with new gentile followers of Jesus.
The charge of blasphemy confirms the idea of the divinity of Jesus. The determination to retain their Jewish identity confirms that they were not importing Pagan ideas.
The idea that the divinity of Jesus is a concept that evolved over time from Pagan sources is an anti-Christian myth. The account of Josephus is another bit of evidence to disprove that theory.