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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

Mutual influence

The author of Luke and Josephus knew each other and influenced each other

Not only was the author of Luke highly influenced by the Flavian’s pet Jewish historian, Josephus. But Josephus shows knowledge of Luke/Acts and sets himself up as equal to Paul and Jesus. Which supports the idea that the draft Testimonium was written by the author of Luke.

The passage known as the Testimonium is perhaps the best evidence for Jesus’ existence outside the Bible. In previous posts, we explored how the Testimonium must be original to Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, and yet is closely tied to a passage in the Gospel of Luke (Josephus’ Impossible Testimonium). Then, in She was in the room where it happened, we saw how the emperor’s niece, the mother of the emperor-designate, was a known Christian and would have attended pre-publication readings of the Antiquities. We proposed that the author of Luke wrote the draft of the Testimonium and that Josephus was obliged to include it at the request of Flavia Domitilla.

In this article, we look at the mutual influences between Luke/Acts and Josephus’ later works that support this conclusion. Not only is the author of Luke influenced by Josephus, but crucially, Josephus is influenced by the author of Luke. This indicates that they both belonged to the same circle—the Flavian court in Rome.

The post and others in the series are based on my book, The Gospel of Domitilla, which sets out the evidence that the unknown author of Luke/Acts was Domitilla herself.

Josephus influenced the author of Luke

The influence of Josephus on Luke/Acts is well-known and uncontroversial, but it is also unexpected. Josephus, a former Pharisee and member of the Jerusalem establishment, was at the opposite end of the social spectrum to the Christian apostles of the Way. After he defected to the Romans and was present at the destruction of the temple, most Jews would have seen him as a traitor deserving death. Among the Romans, interest in Josephus’ writings would have declined after the deaths of Vespasian and Titus. As a Jew who had fought on the rebel side, he did not fit Roman expectations for a history writer. So it is surprising that Luke/Acts is strongly influenced by his works.

At the highest level, the concept of Acts, a history of the Christians, seems to have been inspired by the example of the Antiquities, a history of the Jews. There are also specific passages in both Luke and Acts which echo passages in Josephus.

Whether Acts used Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews as a source has been hotly debated. Some traditional Christian apologists reject the idea because of the implications for the dating of Luke/Acts. Antiquities was only published in 93/94, so this would seem to push Acts back to a surprisingly late date. However, if the author had attended a pre-publication reading, Acts could have been produced in the early 90s. And it would explain a puzzling feature—although Acts copies Josephus, it does so inaccurately and confusedly. If the author had heard the Antiquities being read out but did not have a written copy, they would have to quote from memory, a hazardous procedure for any writer.

The more general influences depend on a sensitive reading and are easily dismissed by the sceptic. But we will start with a specific case that is difficult to explain away.

Theudas and Judas the Galilean

When the Pharisee Gamaliel addresses the Sanhedrin in Acts, he uses the example of two former rebels:

And he said to them, “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you are about to do with these men. Some time ago, Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him, but he was put to death, and all who were persuaded by him were dispersed, and it came to nothing. After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away people after him. And he perished, and his followers were scattered.” (Acts 5:35-37)

So Acts says that Theudas came before Judas the Galilean, who rose up in the “days of the census.” This is the same census under Quirinius in 6 AD that the nativity account in Luke wrongly places before 4 BC. So Theudas’ rebellion must have occurred in 6 AD—or if we believe Luke, 4 BC. But Theudas, a would-be prophet who led a revolt, was actually killed by the procurator Fadus in 45/46 AD. The author of Luke has placed him at least forty years too early. Why would they have made such a mistake?

If we turn to Antiquities 20:97-103, we find the answer. Josephus first gives the story of Theudas and Fadus. He then moves on to the next procurator, Tiberius Alexander, who ordered the crucifixion of James and Simon, the two sons of Judas the Galilean. Josephus then reminds his readers how Judas the Galilean had led a revolt while Quirinius was taking the census. So the passage covers both Theudas and Judas in that order, even though Judas lived long before.

The author of Luke has imperfectly remembered the passage and made the mistake of thinking that Judas came after Theudas. Christian apologists who believed the Bible to be inerrant cannot accept this. They claim that there must have been an earlier rebel called Theudas. But Josephus mentions no such person, and the name is rare. More pertinent is the apologist’s argument that not all the details in the Acts passage come from Josephus. The number of Theudas’ followers is explicitly given as four hundred in Acts, although Josephus does not mention the number. However, the number four hundred does appear in the Antiquities in connection with another rebel, the man called “the Egyptian.” Josephus reports how a force commanded by the procurator Felix fell upon the Egyptian and his followers, killing four hundred and capturing two hundred. The two episodes of Theudas and the Egyptian are so close that it is easy to see how the author of Luke could have recalled the number four hundred and applied it to the wrong rebel. The Egyptian also makes a brief cameo appearance in Acts when the legionary tribune asks Paul whether he is the Egyptian. Here, it is said that the Egyptian had four thousand followers.

Since the author of Luke has made a mistake about Theudas and Judas that depends upon the order in which Josephus deals with them, we must conclude that the author is aware of the Antiquities.

Confirmation comes from other links. We can compare the eight lines of the Antiquities from 20:97 to 20:104 to Acts: 

  • Both have the revolt of Theudas (as above).
  • Both have the revolt of Judas the Galilean at the time of the census (as above).
  • Both have a famine in the reign of Claudius (Ant. 20;101; Acts 11:28-29).
  • In both cases, the famine in Judea is relieved by help from outside. In Antiquities, this help comes from the Jewish convert Queen Helena, and in Acts, it comes from the Christian community of Antioch.
  • In both cases, the famine is followed shortly afterwards by an account of the death of “Herod”; he is the brother of King Agrippa I in Ant. 20:104, and Agrippa I himself in Acts 12:20-3.

There are too many points of similarity to be a coincidence. The author of Luke knew of Antiquities 20:97-104, most likely through attending a reading. We also get a sense of competition between the two authors. While Josephus uses the famine to show the generosity of Helena, Acts goes one better by having the prophet Agabus predict the famine so that the Christians can alleviate it in advance.

The evidence that the author of Luke attended pre-publication readings of book twenty of the Antiquities supports the conclusion that they wrote the Testimonium to correct Josephus’ omission of any mention of Jesus in book eighteen.

The same three rebels

Josephus tells us that there were many rebels and false prophets arising in Judea at this time. He illustrates the “many” by giving just three examples: Judas, the Galilean, Theudas, and the Egyptian. But these are also the only three Jewish rebels mentioned in Acts. Josephus does not give the name of “the Egyptian,” and the author of Luke does not know it either. It would be an amazing coincidence if Josephus and the author of Luke just happened to choose the same three examples. We can conclude that the author of Luke took their knowledge of these rebels from the Antiquities.

The death of Agrippa I

In both the Antiquities and Acts, there is a story about the death of Agrippa I, and they are similar enough to indicate dependence. Our most reliable version comes from Antiquities 19:343-50. Agrippa was in Caesarea celebrating the games in honour of Caesar for which he wore a gown woven entirely of silver thread. It dazzled the crowd as it shone in the sun, and the people were so amazed they hailed the king as a god. Agrippa did not rebuke them and was immediately struck with intense pain in the stomach. It lasted for five days until he died.

In Acts, Agrippa had been in dispute with Tyre and Sidon, but the people of these cities wanted peace because Agrippa controlled their food supply. So they arranged an audience with the king through the services of an official:

On the appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and addressed them. And the people were crying out, “This is the voice of a god and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because Herod did not give glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12: 23)

Comparing the Acts story with Antiquities, there are several similarities:

  • In Antiquities, the death of Agrippa takes place at Caesarea. Although the Acts story does not explicitly mention Caesarea, the audience would have taken place there as Tyre and Sidon are a short distance along the coast.
  • The death is preceded by a dispute between Agrippa and the Roman governor of Syria (Josephus) or Syrian cities (Acts).
  • In both cases, there is a reference to Agrippa’s robe.
  • In both cases, Agrippa is acclaimed by the people as a god.
  • Agrippa is “eaten by worms” in Acts. In Antiquities, he has severe abdominal pain.

The Acts version, however, does not make sense. Agrippa had no power to restrict the food supply to a Roman province. And Josephus says that the people of Tyre were the bitterest enemies of the Jews, so they are not going to call Agrippa a god. Acts does not explain why Agrippa is acclaimed as a god by the people, and the king’s robe does not play any part in the rest of the story. We need to turn to Antiquities to see how the robe is the real reason for the acclamation and how the occasion was actually the games held for the people of Caesarea.

The Acts story is a distorted version of the Antiquities account. The author of Luke was apt to change the sources significantly for their narrative. But even so, it seems unlikely that they have access to a written copy of Antiquities as they write. The Acts version must be based on a faulty memory of the Antiquities story or a verbal account from Josephus.

Schools of philosophy

Josephus and the author of Luke are both grappling with a similar problem; how to make their respective religions acceptable to the Roman elite. Josephus’ strategy is to present the various Jewish religious groups as if they were schools of philosophy. In one famous section of the Jewish War, he sets them out as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes, which he calls three “schools.” Scholars have noted that Josephus’ description of the Essenes seems to owe much to the Greek Stoics: his idealized Essenes are very different from the assorted dissident religious groups revealed by the Dead Sea scrolls.

The author of Luke employs a similar strategy for the Christians. In Acts, Paul even lectures the philosophers of Athens and engages them in debate. After the spirit descends upon the Christians, they form an ideal community holding all property in common:

The multitude of believers was one in heart and soul. No one claimed that anything he possessed was his own, but all things were held in common. (Acts 4:32)

We know from Paul’s letters that this is not an accurate depiction of early Christian communities. Paul is continually lecturing his churches about money. He is frustrated with some of the Corinthians for maintaining social distinctions to the extent of not even sharing a meal with the poorer brethren in church meetings. He urges his readers to give generously to his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. The recipients of these letters have obviously not donated all their money and possessions to a common fund. Even Acts seems to cool on the idea because holding property in common is not mentioned again. Wealthy Christians, like Lydia, continue to maintain their own households after conversion.

The idea of holding all property in common draws upon one of the most pervasive and powerful myths of Roman culture—that of the golden age. Before the ages of iron and bronze came the age of gold, when that metal was plentiful and the earth bountiful. There was no private property because there was no need. Everyone shared and was wealthy alike. In Acts, the gift of the holy spirit puts the first Christians back into this golden age.

Josephus similarly presents the Essenes as sharing all property:

Contemptuous of wealth, they are communists to perfection, and none of them will be found to be better off than the rest: their rule is that novices admitted to the sect must surrender their property to the order, so that among them all neither humiliating poverty nor excessive wealth is ever seen, but each man’s possessions go into the pool and as with brothers their entire property belongs to all.

As Steve Mason has pointed out, the author of Luke does not mention the Essenes but substitutes the Christians as the “third way” after the Pharisees and Sadducees. It seems that the author of Luke has modelled the idea that Christians hold all property in common on Josephus’ Essenes. The notion put forward by Josephus that a novice must surrender all their property makes sense of the episode of Ananias and Sapphira; they are struck dead for keeping back some proceeds from the sale of their field.

Josephus, alone among Jewish writers, describes the Jewish religious movements as “schools” as if they were pagan philosophers. But we find the same terminology in Acts, where the Pharisees and Sadducees are described as hairesis or philosophical schools. In Acts 26:5, Paul calls the Pharisees the “most exact school,” the same phrase used by Josephus. Because this way of talking was unique to Josephus, we can be confident that Acts borrows from him.

Steve Mason goes further than this and argues that the author of Luke presents Christianity as a philosophical school in imitation of Josephus’ treatment of the Essenes. We need not stretch Josephus’ influence quite this far. An upper-class Roman would have absorbed philosophical thinking with their mother’s milk. And to the author of Luke, the Christians are not just another “school”, as their Jewish opponents call them, but the Way—something that supersedes all that has gone before.

Was Josephus influenced by Luke/Acts?

It is one thing to say that Luke/Acts is influenced by Josephus, as the author could just have access to Josephus’ books. But if Josephus were influenced by Luke/Acts, it would tell us that the two authors were acquainted. And that would enable us to locate the author of Luke in Flavian Rome.

The influences in this direction all come from Josephus’ late work, his autobiography, “The Life”. This was attached as an appendix to his Antiquities, which was finished in 93/94 AD, so we can date the Life to around this time. It would have been written about two years after book eighteen, which contains the Testimonium.

It is one thing to detect a similarity between two texts, but it is harder to decide which of the two came first. In the case of this late work, we can be confident that Josephus has copied Luke/Acts.

Two stories of a shipwreck

We start with the account (Josephus’ Life 15) of how Josephus was shipwrecked as a young man on his way to Rome. One possibility is that this inspired the story of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts. There are some striking similarities; both Paul and Josephus are on their way to Rome when shipwrecked, they are both shipwrecked in the sea of Adria, and they both continue their journey in a different ship which lands at the identical port, Puteoli, in Italy. So many similarities are suspicious, although none of these coincidences is particularly unlikely. Shipwrecks were common in the ancient world; Paul says he was shipwrecked three times. The sea of Adria continued much further south than what we call the Adriatic Sea, so a shipwreck on a voyage from the east to Rome might well take place in this area. The journey would have to be continued on another boat, and Puteoli was the usual passenger port for Rome. There are also marked differences between the two stories; in Acts, the ship is beached near an island with passengers able to cross to shore on timbers, whereas Josephus swam all night in the open sea.

However, the obvious source for the Acts shipwreck is Paul’s letters. And this brings us to the idea that the author of Luke has influenced Josephus. His shipwreck description is suspiciously close to Paul’s words: “Three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day in the deep.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25) Paul spent a day and night on the open water, and Josephus had to swim all night before being rescued after daybreak. If Domitilla had discussed Christianity with Josephus, she would likely have quoted from Paul’s letters. Josephus’ shipwreck story seems to be a mixture of Paul’s own account and the Acts’ shipwreck. So Josephus could be attempting to impress Domitilla by presenting his own experiences as matching or exceeding those of Paul.

Two stories about Jewish teachers and a boy genius

Another coincidence supports this idea. Josephus’ only story about his boyhood is very similar to the only story about Jesus’ boyhood in the gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, the twelve-year-old Jesus accompanies his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover. On the return journey, his parents find that Jesus is missing and go back to search for him:

And after three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All those who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:47)

Compare this with Josephus:

While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of letters; insomuch that the chief priests and the leading men of the city used constantly to come to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances. (Josephus, The Life 8-9)

In both cases, the subject is called a “child,” and their age is given; for Jesus, it is twelve, but Josephus, with his superior knowledge of Jewish custom, makes it a more realistic fourteen. Both Jesus and Josephus amaze their listeners with their answers to learned questions. However, while Jesus seeks out the wise men to ask them questions, the wise men approach Josephus to ask him. The Josephus story is more impressive but also absurd. No high priest is going to lose face by consulting a boy on questions of the law, no matter how clever that child was. Josephus is writing at around age sixty in Rome, safe in the knowledge that no one can contradict him. We can see the Josephus story as a fiction suggested by the gospel of Luke. The alternative view is that the author of Luke has copied Josephus. But there is no reason why they should pick on an episode from Josephus’ Life and apply it to Jesus.

In both cases, the boy becomes the disciple of a wild man baptizer

In Luke, the story of the boy Jesus visiting the temple is immediately followed by the account of John the Baptist in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-18). In The Life, Josephus follows the story of the priests consulting him on matters of the law with an account of how, at age sixteen, he became the disciple of a holy man in the wilderness:

…on hearing of one Bannus, who dwelt in the wilderness, wearing only such clothing as trees provided, feeding on such things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake, I became his devoted disciple. (Josephus, The Life 11)

The comparison to John, who practiced baptisms of water for purity, is obvious. The idea of anyone wearing clothing that the trees provided is odd. The description of John in Mark and Matthew is different and memorable; he was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey. The Gospel of Luke, however, omits these particulars. In Luke, John does tell the people to “bear fruits” and warns that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down” (Luke 3:9). A hazy memory of this passage could have given Josephus the idea that John used the products of the tree. Whether or not this is so, the coincidence between Luke and Josephus’ Life is striking; in both cases the elders consult the boy Jesus/Josephus who then, when he attains manhood, follows a baptizer in the desert. We know that the Gospel of Luke is not copying Josephus here because Luke is dependent on Mark and Matthew for John the Baptist. So Josephus must be copying Luke.

Two stories of a mystical night visitor predicting an encounter with the Romans

The final example concerns a pivotal moment in The Life. When the Jerusalem priests send a delegation to arrest Josephus and bring him back to Jerusalem, he says he was inclined to go with them. But something happens to change his mind:

That night I beheld a marvelous vision in my dreams. I had retired to my couch, grieved and distraught by the tidings in the letter, when I thought that there stood by me one who said: “Cease man from thy sorrow of heart, let go all fear. That which grieves thee now will promote thee to greatness and felicity in all things. […] Remember that thou must even battle with the Romans.” (Josephus, The Life 208-9)

In Acts, Paul has a remarkably similar experience:

But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so also you must testify in Rome.” (Acts 23:11)

Both Paul and Josephus are distressed before receiving a divine visitor at night. In both cases, the visitor stands by them to give them courage. The visitor predicts that each will have an encounter with the Romans; Josephus will battle them, and Paul will “testify,” meaning to be tried, in Rome.

Josephus’ account is egocentric, talking about his “greatness and felicity.” It refers to his prediction of Vespasian becoming emperor and the good fortune it brought him. Twenty years earlier, he described quite differently how he came to have this prophecy in the cave of Jotapata. He talked about vague dreams concerning the fate of the Jews and the Roman emperors, the meaning of which came to him in a flash of inspiration in the cave (Jewish War 3:351-54). The story of the celestial visitation has been made up for the Life. It is not like Josephus’ normal matter-of-fact style but closely resembles the miraculous visions that occur so often in Luke/Acts. Josephus was no mystic; this is the only time he describes himself as having an explicit supernatural experience.

In “Josephus and the New Testament”, Mason points out this dream comes in the very centre of the Life, which he believes has a chiastic structure (p. 128). The story serves a literary purpose as the centrepiece of the history of Josephus’ time in Galilee and a prediction of his future good fortune. It must be based on Paul’s vision in Acts.

So on four separate occasions, Josephus uses Christian sources for something in the Life. And three of the four, the shipwreck, the boy genius and the holy teacher in the desert, come successively within eight verses out of a total of over four hundred in The Life. Why should Josephus use Christian texts in this way when they would have been entirely obscure for most of his Roman readers? The influences are from three different works: Luke, Acts, and the letters of Paul. We can expect him to have listened to Domitilla recite from all three.

Impressing an imperial lady

The three consecutive episodes in which we see Josephus trying to place himself on a level with Paul and Jesus are followed by a story about Nero’s wife, Poppaea, granting him special favours. In Antiquities book twenty, written shortly before The Life, he even calls the notorious Poppaea a “worshipper of God” meaning a God-fearer (Antiquities 20:195). It is very difficult to believe that Poppaea was really a gentile worshipper of the Jewish God. But Josephus is writing in c.93 with another imperial lady in mind. Almost certainly, Flavia Domitilla was a God-fearer before converting to Christianity. He sets the example of Poppaea and her supposed generous patronage of Josephus and the Jews in front of her. And he attempts to impress her by making himself equal to Paul and even to Jesus himself.

For more, see The Gospel of Domitilla.