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Christians Should Read Josephus!
The Princeton scholar James Charlesworth once said that he had inherited the libraries of five pastors who had either retired or passed away, and in every single one of them was a copy of Wiliam Whiston’s translation of Josephus.
If you don’t know, Josephus was a first-century Judean aristocrat who played a key role in the Judean rebellion against Rome before getting captured and defecting to the Roman side. His War of the Jews is our main source about the 66-70 AD Judean rebellion, his work Antiquities of the Jews is one of our main sources on Jewish religious and political history, his autobiography and apologetic tract in favour of Judaism are also immensely profitable to read, and Josephus appears to mention in passing John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother (though the integrity of these passages are disputed).
So rather than read Your Best Life Now or Left Behind novels, I wish more Christians read Josephus. While William Whiston’s translation is now antiquated, archaic, even a tad inaccurate in parts, yet you can easily purchase the Loeb Classical Library volumes, some are even available from Logos Bible Software.
Let me give you one example of the value of reading Josephus, consider his story of the conversion of King Izates of Adiabene to Judaism sometime around 44-46 AD (NB: Adiabene is located in northern Iraq, it was a buffer state between Syria, Armenia, and Parthia).
Now during the time when Izates resided at Charax Spasini, a certain Jewish merchant named Ananias visited the king’s wives and taught them to worship God after the manner of the Jewish tradition. It was through their agency that he was brought to the notice of Izates, whom he similarly won over with the co-operation of the women … When Izates had learned that his mother was very much pleased with the Jewish religion, he was zealous to convert to it himself; and since he considered that he would not be genuinely a Jew unless be was circumcised, he was ready to act accordingly. When his mother learned of his intention, however, she tried to stop him by telling him that it was a dangerous move For, she said, he was a king; and if his subjects should discover that he was devoted to rites that were strange and foreign to themselves, it would produce much dissatisfaction, and they would not tolerate the rule of a Jew over them … He, in turn, reported her arguments to Ananias … The king, could, he [Ananias] said, worship God even without being circumcised if indeed he had fully decided to be a devoted adherent of Judaism, for it was this that counted more than circumcision. He told him, furthermore, that God himself would pardon him if, constrained thus by necessity and by fear of his subjects, he failed to perform this rite. And so, for the time, the king was convinced by his arguments. Afterwards, however, since he had not completely given up his desire, another Jew, named Eleazar, who came from Galilee and who had a reputation for being extremely strict when it came to the ancestral laws, urged him to carry out the rite. For when he came to him to pay his respects and found the law of Moses, he said: ‘In your ignorance, O king, you are guilty of the greatest offence against the law and thereby against god. For you ought not merely to read the law but also, and even more, to do what is commanded in it. How long will you continue to be uncircumcised? If you have ot yet the law concerning this matter, read it now, so that you may know what an impiety it is that you commit.’ Upon hearing these words, the king postponed the deed no longer (trans. LCL).
What’s the significance of this story? Well, note the situation. Does Izates have to be circumcised in order to fully convert to Judaism? Ananias said “No, don’t sweat it bro, just worship God as you are. God’s totally cool with that.” In contrast, Eleazar said, “Damn right you do, unless you want to stand in defiance of God’s holy law. Bra, do you even Gen 17.11?”
Remind you of anything? It should! Go back and read Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the same issue is being played out: Do male Gentiles have to become Jews via circumcision in order to be followers of Jesus?
This story from Josephus shows that the question of how to integrate Gentiles who adhere to Jewish ways and believe in and venerate the God of Israel into a Jewish community was a matter of on-going debate. A debate that the early Christians participated in their way by stating that faith not circumcision was the boundary marker of belonging to God’s holy people.
So, yes, read more Josephus and less goss and dross from the Christian book market.
What about you? Have you ever read Josephus and had anything like an “Aha” moment?
FYI, to read more on this precise topic of Gentile converts and circumcision, see my books Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period and An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans.
NB, I just listened to Paul Spilsbury of Regent College talk about Josephus on the podcast OnScript. Well worth a listen: