Luke and Josephus

There has been much made, particularly in some Skeptical quarters, about a case claimed for influence of the work of Josephus on the books of Luke and Acts. Alleged parallels have been noted, not just recently, and discussion has been had over whether Luke influenced Josephus, Josephus influenced Luke, or both used a common source. The second position has obvious ramifications for a dating of Luke's work, since Josephus wrote late in the first century, and this would puts Luke-Acts into the very late first century at the earliest.

Often used as a case for the second idea is Steve Mason's work, Josephus and the New Testament [186ff]. We will look in some detail at Mason's arguments, which have been used to claim that this would constitute proof that Luke is fabricating history, merely borrowing it from Josephus and tailoring it for his purposes.

We may skip a significant portion of Mason's commentary, in which he notes generic parallels which derive from commonality of Luke and Josephus as historians of their time (e.g., both use historical prefaces) and place (e.g., both are influenced by the OT). Such parallels Mason derives no case from, and does not claim that it adds to or supports his more direct evidence, as indeed it does not.

However, we shall begin rather with some general comments, derived from Witherington's commentary on Acts, which heavily critiques Mason's allegation that Luke may have been influenced by Josephus, as evidenced by what Mason calls an "incredible series of coincidences".

First, Witherington notes Mason's "predisposition to use Josephus as a measuring rod to evaluate Luke's work" and his "tendency to give Josephus the benefit of the doubt on historical matters." [236] But Witherington points out that Josephus was not as deserving of this benefit: He wrote in Rome, "where the rhetorical concerns of the more sophisticated historians were strongly affecting the writing of history to the point of distorting the truth in various ways."

Josephus also offers "frequent contradictions in names, numbers and the order in which events are reported" -- a sign of normal ancient editorial freedom (Link 1 below), to be sure, and thus not an error or sign of untrustworthiness; but something those comparing Luke and Josephus and judging them by modern standards should be aware of.

The bottom line is that it is not possible to use Josephus as a "measuring rod" by which to judge Luke.

With that, we may now consider specifics of Mason's case for Lukan derivation.

  • The census. Here we may be brief, considering our prior detailed comparison (Link 2 below) of issues. Mason works under the assumption that Luke reports the same census as Josephus; as has been noted, however, Luke's grammar may refer rather to a census before the famous one taken under Quirinius. If this is so, then Mason's ideas that Luke "knew some highlights of Josephus' story but did not recall or was not concerned with the details" [208] falls by the wayside.

    Note, however, is an unfalsifiable explanation that rather conveniently "saves the theory in spite of the facts" by saying that Luke obviously knew Josephus, because they are so similar, but begs off obvious indications that Luke did not know Josephus, by making Luke's knowledge or expression imperfect. In such a case, the theory has an answer to every disproof, and is therefore epistemically useless.

    Thus as well, Secular web denizen Richard Carrier, in advertising Mason's thesis, loses the claim that: "Josephus uses the census as a key linchpin in his story, the beginning of the wicked faction of Jews that would bring down Judaea (and the temple), whereas Luke transvalues this message by making this census the linchpin for God's salvation for the world, namely the birth of Christ (which also would result in destruction of the temple)." The "linchpin" becomes attached elsewhere in Luke, making the connection false; and in any event, the description here is as contrived as any one of MacDonald's Markan-Homeric parallels: To say the "birth of Christ" gives the "result" of the Temple's destruction is incredibly strained; the death of Christ, his rejection, is what results in Jerusalem's judgment in all the Gospels.

    A further point to be noted is the claim that "no other author did or was even likely to have seen this census as particularly noteworthy..." Mason himself contradicts Carrier on this point, calling this the "famous census under Quirinius," and only says, "We suspect (emphasis added) that other writers would not have given the census such prominence..." [208]

    Suspicions in this context are not worthy bases to form an argument. We have no way of knowing what prominence other writers would have given this census, except by what Luke and Josephus tell us, and if what they report has any truth, then this census did indeed have prominence. Luke's own point by the above would be to ensure that his reader does not think that the census in question was the famous one, but rather, an earlier one that did not cause as much seditious activity.

    Mason also signifies Luke's association of the census, in Acts 5:37, with Judas the Galileean, which Josephus does as well. Witherington of course observes that in this and many cases Mason gives, both authors "are talking about major political figures whose lives and exploits were widely known among Jews, especially Jews in the Holy Land. It is far from unlikely that Luke could have had independent information of these figures and their lives from sources other than Josephus."

  • The Egyptian, Judas, and Theudas. This is an issue we have seen many times, and many times referred to Link 3 below. Mason alleges an incredible coincidence that Luke and Josephus should name the same three rebel leaders, and notes the argument that Luke has placed Judas and Theudas in the wrong order, evidencing dependence on Josephus -- a charge refuted by both Miller and Witherington in some detail [238-9]. We may note as well that it should hardly be seen as any coincidence that Luke and Josephus might make light of the same three people -- not because one copied the other, but because this is no more unlikely that that two different writers asked to name the three most influential Presidents in a 50-year span might both come with the same three names, like Kennedy, Reagan, and Nixon.

    Where the matter of "the Egyptian" is concerned, Mason finds it remarkable that Luke ("incorrectly," he says) associates the Egyptian with the sicarii. The note in inaccuracy in quite ironic, since Josephus is regarded as less accurate than Luke in reporting the number of people who followed the Egyptian (30,000 vs. 4,000).

    Mason rather unimaginatively supposes that because he can find the word sicarii in no other earlier work, Josephus must have used it first and Luke must have copied him. Indeed, Mason supposes some rather unimaginative people living in the first century, who would not think to take the Latin sica (dagger) and put a simple suffix on the end of it; even if not a formal group, though, it is hard to see why Josephus had to be the inventor of the word. The greater irony is that in this argument, Mason contradicts those scholars who allege that the sicarii group existed and were associated with Jesus, at a time when Josephus was a toddler.

    Mason argues that because Josephus does not connect the Egyptian and the sicarii, but discusses one right after the other, Luke -- conveniently having an imperfect memory or Josephus, but just good enough, in order to support Mason's thesis -- must have confounded the two and put them together.

    Of course this does beg the question of who is accurate to begin with, but Witherington adds a secondary point: "Luke is reporting the off-the-cuff remarks of a Roman tribune under duress, who himself could have jumbled up the facts." [238] This is especially worth note inasmuch as Luke shows the tribune to be one who, in his letter to the procurator, shows "his ability to bend the truth." Yet, Mason cannot understand how Luke could associate the sicarii with the desert, unless he poorly recalled Josephus: "Luke's placing of the sicarii in the desert indicates that he knows their name but is not clear about what they do," he says.

    But as Witherington points out, retreat into the desert for any group is inherently probable; either the Egyptian would do so in position himself as a Moses-like or Elijah-like figure (what about John the Baptist and the Qumranites appealing to Is. 40, and going into the desert as a result?), as he says, or we would add that the desert, as a place socially outside normal boundaries, is the proper place in a Judaen context for sicarii to retreat.

    Carrier adds his own erroneous idea, apart from Mason:

    In fact, to use only the rather generic nick-name "The Egyptian," instead of, or without, an actual name of any kind (there were millions of Egyptians, and certainly thousands in Judaea at any given time), though explicable as an affectation of one author, seems a little strange when two authors repeat the same idiom.

    One would like to know where Carrier gets statistics showing that there were "certainly thousands" of Egyptians at any given time, but whether that is true or not, it is false that there is anything strange about the use of the same idiom by Josephus and Luke. Indeed, if the Egyptian's name was not known -- or even if it was -- referring to him by his nationality would be the most natural thing for people to do in this age when one's social group and nationality was of particular importance. Indeed, by calling him "the Egyptian" the people (not just Luke or Josephus, who would hardly have been the ones to invent the reference) would associate the man with whatever social vices the Egyptians were commonly associated with in this period of heavy stereotyping. Carrier is simply in error to think of this as some sort of odd "generic".

    Also independently of Mason, Carrier comes up with the idea that Luke mentions these three men "specifically as examples of what the Christians are not". This is quite an imaginative reading of Luke, whose use of these three is made in an entirely offhand manner, with no effort made to compare them to Jesus or Christians.

    Carrier also makes the astonishing claim that "Luke greatly downplays Jesus' use of violence in clearing the temple, and emphasizes in its place his role as teacher: compare Luke 19:45-8 with Mark 11:15-8, Matthew 21:12-6, and John 2:13-6."

    This is a serious overstatement. First, note Luke:

    Luke 19:45-8 And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him, And could not find what they might do: for all the people were very attentive to hear him.

    Now compare Mark:

    Mark 15:11-18 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.

    There is in fact no "downplaying" here and no so such switch in emphasis: Mark does note that Jesus taught in the Temple (12:35); the only other difference is that Luke does not report the specific of the tables being overthrown and the forbiddance of carrying vessels. But Matthew lacks the latter as well, as we see below; does this mean that he "emphasizes" Jesus as "violent" less than Mark?

    No, this is merely Carrier reading the passages with too much imagination. Luke's report of ejecting people from the Temple area is the most interactively "violent" of all the actions reported ("violence" to inanimate objects is hardly more noteworthy). And to top it off anyway, it's questionable to see this as "violence" in the first place, as Glenn Miller notes:

    One should never confuse zeal, judgment, drama, prophetic symbolic action--or even forceful expulsion of destructive agents--with acts of unlawful physical aggression or 'violence' or 'lashing out at enemies'.

    Now Matthew:

    Matthew 21:12-16 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

    As noted, Matthew barely says more than Luke; and why not say he "de-emphasizes" the violence to depict Jesus as a healer? And John, well:

    John 2:13-16 And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.

    If we're measuring "violence" atomistically here, why is not John's Jesus more "violent" because this time, he has a weapon in his hand?

    The bottom line: Carrier's claim that Luke gives us a "lower violence" Jesus is a serious overstatement.

    Thus we have the two "major" parallels cited by Mason, and both are quite questionable. We now turn to alleged "minor parallels". The first is the report of the death of Agrippa in Acts 12. Josephus reports this event as well, and Mason supposes that Luke had Josephus, or an account like his, "in his memory". This is a clear example of what Witherington noted, in which Mason arbitrarily takes from Luke the benefit of the doubt; it is also an example of how Mason modifies the theory to fit the facts that stand against it.

    He does not name any specific reasons to suppose derivation, but Carrier, with imagination, sees a "strange similarity" he thinks cannot be explained otherwise:

    Josephus connects the divine praise with the putting on of a brilliant robe, whereas Luke mentions putting on a robe before the praise, but without making the connection explicit--one wonders why the donning of the robe is mentioned by Luke at all, if he was not thinking of this story in Josephus.

    The answer to this would be known by any person remotely familiar with the social world of the New Testament: The connection is explicit enough as is, for in donning his robes, Agrippa has made a clear and public declaration of his personal honor and position. Luke does not need to spell this out for low-context moderns.

    Mason names other overlapping points, of which he clearly says, "In my view, these parallels are too vague to establish a relationship between the texts." Carrier, however, decides to trump Mason and discover his own reasons.

    The first is the "association of Agrippa II with Berenice." Carrier argues that while Josephus "hints at an incestuous affair between them, and Agrippa II's other profligate tendencies, there is no explanation given by Luke for mentioning Berenice at all, and from his account one would think that Agrippa II is an honorable, disciplined observer of Jewish customs."

    That's quite imaginative indeed; of course Carrier supposes that readers of Luke's text were being introduced to Agrippa for the first time and that they would have some need to have all of this gossip reported. Luke's story, we may point out, is about Paul, not about Agrippa or Berenice; but it is as well to retort to Carrier's comment:

    But if a reader knows the details of Josephus, the entire scene of Paul before Agrippa II becomes comic sarcasm.

    True enough. And if a reader knows the details of actual history, the scene is comic sarcasm just the same. It is a leap of presumption to suppose that the only possible source Luke's readers could have had about Agrippa was Josephus -- as if people's ignorance at this time could only be solved by reading Josephus. Behind this argument lies a misapprehension that the people of this day only had available the informational sources we do now.

    Carrier makes an identical argument with respect to the "association of Felix with Drusilla"; of that, no more need be said, for the answer is the same. Then we have these minor points, which again, though Carrier fails to say so under his usual paradigm of withholding crucial information, Mason does not regard as sufficient to establish a relationship:

  • Felix sending priests, "excellent men," to Rome for trial on petty charges (Life 13) Could this have been Luke's pretext or model for having the same thing happen to Paul? "Could" it have been? It seems more likely that Paul, who in his own letters speaks of being in jail and in trouble, did have at some point to go on trial in Rome -- and the charges against him were hardly "petty" in Acts; the charge was sedition. Josephus does not say what the charge was against the priests, only that it was "petty".
  • Mention of Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1; JW 2.215, 2.247, JA 19.275) This of course is no more meaningful than two different writers using a specific President of note, like Kennedy, as a marker. It tells us nothing other that Lysanias was a person of some note, such that two writers could find him useful as a benchmark. No further imagination is required.
  • The parable of the hated king sounds a lot like Josephus on Herod (Luke 19:12-27; JW 1.282-5) That may well be because Herod was just like this and was an excellent model for the parable. But compare anyway:

    Luke 1912-17 He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds. And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities.
    War 1.282-5 Hereupon Antony was moved to compassion at the change that had been made in Herod's affairs, and this both upon his calling to mind how hospitably he had been treated by Antipater, but more especially on account of Herod's own virtue; so he then resolved to get him made king of the Jews, whom he had himself formerly made tetrarch. The contest also that he had with Antigonus was another inducement, and that of no less weight than the great regard he had for Herod; for he looked upon Antigonus as a seditious person, and an enemy of the Romans; and as for Caesar, Herod found him better prepared than Antony, as remembering very fresh the wars he had gone through together with his father, the hospitable treatment he had met with from him, and the entire good-will he had showed to him; besides the activity which he saw in Herod himself. So he called the senate together, wherein Messalas, and after him Atratinus, produced Herod before them, and gave a full account of the merits of his father, and his own good-will to the Romans. At the same time they demonstrated that Antigonus was their enemy, not only because he soon quarreled with them, but because he now overlooked the Romans, and took the government by the means of the Parthians. These reasons greatly moved the senate; at which juncture Antony came in, and told them that it was for their advantage in the Parthian war that Herod should be king; so they all gave their votes for it. And when the senate was separated, Antony and Caesar went out, with Herod between them; while the consul and the rest of the magistrates went before them, in order to offer sacrifices, and to lay the decree in the Capitol. Antony also made a feast for Herod on the first day of his reign.

    "Sounds a lot like"? The only soundalike here is having to go somewhere else to receive a kingdom -- there is not a word about Herod trusting affairs to servants, or demanding account from them, in Josephus; and not a word from Jesus about Parthians or other enemies, or about a son testifying, or a feast. Try instead, "sounds not a single thing like".

  • Similarities in the description of the siege of Jerusalem (including mention of slaughtered children: Luke 19:43-4; JW 6)

    Well, imagine that: And we thought slaughtered children were rare in ancient warfare? But comparison isn't even necessary: Carrier and Mason pick on Chapter 6 of the War "in general," and when you get to compare two verses with two pages about the same subject, if you can't find out some sort of likeness, your imagination needs better exercise.

  • Mention of a famine in the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28-9; JA 3.320, 20:51-3, 20.101) Given the seriousness of famine in the ancient world, this parallel is about as meaningful as noting two different writers who mention the Kennedy assassination in a history of he 1960s, and supposing that one must have depended on the other in complete ignorance.
  • Pilate's attack on Galileans in L sounds like Pilate's attack on Samaritans at Gerizim (Luke 13:1; JA 18.85-7) There's that "sounds like" again, and it obscures much that the specifics refute:

    Luke 13:1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
    Antiquities 18:85-7 BUT the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.

    The "sounds like" amounts to 1) Pilate 2) killed people. That's it. As if Pilate never killed any other people? There are no "Galileeans" and no blood, and no mingling of it with sacrifices.

    A final category noted by Mason involves thematic agreements, notably the specific, as Carrier puts it, of "cleverly paint(ing) their religions as respectable Graeco-Jewish philosophical schools." Of course, that this might merely be a natural function of introducing Greaco-Roman readers to Jewish religion, does not occur to Mason or to Carrier: Yet this would indeed be the most viable, -- I daresay, the ONLY -- option for either writer in presenting their Jewish "superstitions" (as the Romans would say) in a way that would convince a Roman that they were "no different" than they were (a very important point in a collectivist society; thus showing that Mason and Carrier err in approaching the matter from a modern, individualist standpoint).

    We will also find of course that the parallels are either forced or contrived, or involve what would be practical "universals" for the process both Luke and Josephus were involved in.

  • It is noted that Luke and Josephus both use paradidômi (handed down) to refer to how teachings were passed on by Jesus and by Moses. Of course one may ask what other word might as well have been used; and Carriter slyly hints that "the concept also has precedents in Paul". It has a heck of a lot more than "precedent" and a "concept"; Paul uses the word itself in 1 Cor. 11:23 and 15:23 of teaching that he "handed down" to the Corinthians; it is also used of Christian teaching in Jude 1, and 2 Peter 2:21. Luke did not need Josephus to come up with this word.
  • Mason and Carrier both note that Luke and Josephus use the word "secure" (asphaleia) in describing their concept of truth, a philosophical concept for factual and ethical truth. Yes, and? What other word ought they to have been able to use? The reason for this is known by Mason, though he does not see it: Plutarch distinguishes philosophy from superstition on the grounds that only philosophy offers a "secure" way to look at the world. Paul uses the word in 1 Thess. 5:23 ("peace and safety).

    That both Luke and Josephus (and Paul) might use the same "buzzword" means no more than that two commercials for different political candidates might use the word "honest" or "integrity". Derivation is in no sense indicated by the use of this single word (and concept), which appears much, as even Mason admits, in the words of philosophers.

  • Both Mason and Carrier note Luke's "emphasis" on teachings concerned with poverty, hypocrisy, and wealth, though it is admitted that these are "standard philosophical themes (in Stoic and Epicurean thought especially, but also in Platonic and Cynic ideals)", which tells us again only that both Luke and Josephus knew their audience and what they would want to hear about.
  • Carrier says, Luke is is the only Christian author to use the concept of free and frank speech, identified and praised in philosophy as parrhêsia (Acts 2:29, 4:29, 4:31, 28:31). That is simply false; the same word is used in Mark (8:32) and throughout John of Jesus' teaching and presentation. The commonality here is not in a mere word, but in a value of the world Luke, Jesus, and Josephus lived in. As Malina and Rorbaugh note in their social science commentary on John [141], secrecy was a means of formally controlling information available to outsiders, and relied on a "premise of distrust." Such means would be inappropriate for an evangelistic faith like Christianity (cf. 2 Cor. 3:12, where Paul uses the same word: "Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech..."; Eph. 3:12, "In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.")

    This was obviously a value of the Christian movement as a whole, and the larger Greco-Roman world valued -- not something Luke held solely and derived from Josephus while the other Christians went around secretly.

  • Much is made of Luke and Josephus using the word haireseis to describe their movements, but again, Luke was hardly unique in his use of this word (1 Cor. 11:19, Gal. 5:20, 2 Peter 2:1), and it is unreasonable to suppose that Josephus was alone in using this word in communicating facts about Judaism to Gentile/Greek-speaking persons. Once again the argument takes the narrow view that just because we only have a little work from this time left to us today, it must have been the same in the first century.

    More specifically, it is alleged that Luke can only be using Josephus to say that the Pharisees are the "most precise school" (Acts 26:5), as none other than Josephus "uses this idiom (JW 1.110, 2.162; JA 17.41; Life 189)." Why not decide that this was the idiom used (proudly!) of the Pharisees themselves, of themselves (Luke has this in the mouth of Paul)?

  • As a final note, it is said that Luke "curiously never mentions the third school, the Essenes." There is an irony here, for it is held by some scholars that Luke is in fact the only Gospel to mention the Essenes (the "children of light" in Luke 16:8, a title the Essences used of themselves). But indeed, there is nothing curious here; no other Gospel mentions the Essenes, nor did the rabbis for that matter.

    But the case is made that Christianity was seen by Luke as much like and intended to take the place of the Essenes, but the premise of them being alike to begin with is much in error so that argument falls flat. (Link 4 below.)

    So it is that arguing that Luke made use of Josephus requires, as indeed MacDonald required for Mark using Homer, "patience, generosity, and above all, imagination". This is so because there is no way that strict discipline and careful consideration will yield the same conclusion.



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