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Josephus (Hebrew: יוסף בן מתתיהו, Yōsēf Ben Mattiṯyāhu) (37 AD36 AD
3797 He
4040 AM
–c.101 AD100 AD
3861 He
4104 AM
) who became known, in his capacity as a Roman citizen, as Titus Flavius Josephus, was a 1st century Hellenestic Jewish historian and apologist of priestly and royal ancestry who survived and recorded the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His works give an important insight into 1st century Judaism.



The writings of the Jewish historian Josephus are invaluable as a primary source of NT background material. Without them it would be all but impossible to verify or in some cases even to understand some of the historical references in the Gospels and in the book of Acts.[1] Born a priest of royal (Hasmonean) descent,[2] he was captured by the Roman army in Galilee in AD 67, were he was leading the Jewish revolt against them. Later, writing with the sponsorship of the Roman Emperor Vespasian,[3] he appears to have had two main purposes. These were to demonstrate both the veracity of the Jewish religion and to promote his thesis that the Romans were God’s instruments in punishing Israel for her departure from the observance of the Law. Not surprisingly Josephus was regarded as a traitor by his own people.[4]

Josephus' Writings on Genesis

In the past the works of Josephus have suffered widespread misunderstanding and misuse.[5] They owe their survival initially to their Imperial patronage, and then to their appropriation by the Christian church, which treasured them for their references to Jesus, John the Baptist, and other New Testament characters and places.[6] They were also used to support the belief that God has rejected Judaism,[7] despite the fact that this was the exact opposite of what Josephus set out to demonstrate! His writings were used widely in the early church.[8] A late tradition held that he actually became a Christian, but Origen specifically denied this.[9] Origen is thought to have based his apologetic work Against Celsus on the model provided by Josephus’ Against Apion.[10] His Life is seen by many as the first Western biography,[11] but its stylistic nature means that it is not always factually accurate.

The first six chapters of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (published AD 93 or 94)[12] are especially relevant to our present study. However, while this paraphrase of Genesis does provide some useful examples of Jewish exegesis current in the first century we should remember that Josephus is writing to his own agenda.[13] It cannot be seen simply as a commentary on the Old Testament text because in this work, as in all his others, Josephus is seeking to demonstrate to his Roman audience that Judaism is an ancient ‘national philosophy’ established by the lawgiver Moses.[14] This explains why some biblical passages are not mentioned (Genesis 38 is omitted),[15] while others are expanded and elaborated upon.[16]

As mentioned above Josephus for the most part simply paraphrases the text of Genesis, but he writes that after Genesis 2:4 Moses began to speak “philosophically,” allowing a possible non-literal understanding of the account.[17] There is no indication within the text of what the ‘philosophical’ meaning could be. Indeed, the extra-biblical references Josephus cites require that the text be taken literally. He promises to write a full explanation of the meaning of the first day elsewhere,[18] but appears not to have done so. For this reason we cannot be absolutely certain that he took the six days literally, though he probably did.

Josephus’ additions to and omissions from the text are among the most interesting aspects of his commentary on Genesis. This is because they indicate the viewpoint that he is attempting to convey to his Roman readers. He claims, for instance that Adam predicted that the world would be destroyed twice, once by water and once by fire.[19] His main theme that wrongdoing brings destruction while right actions bring prosperity becomes the lesson of the account of Paradise.[20] The serpent was jealous of Adam & Eve’s happiness living according to God’s commands (the Bible does not supply a motive). He persuades the woman to eat of the fruit and she in turn persuades Adam. Both then realise that they are naked and make clothing out of fig leaves. When the Lord appears in the Garden Josephus omits two elements of the Genesis account: the reference to Adam knowing that he was naked and of the Lord asking where Adam is. The reasons for these omissions can only be guessed at, but it is likely that Josephus wanted to stop his Roman audience questioning how Adam could say that he was naked whilst wearing fig leaves. Likewise he may have thought that it would be misleading to present the Lord as being ignorant of anything.[21] Josephus rearranges the order of the Paradise account at several points. He places the formation of Eve outside Eden and makes both the man and the woman recipients of God’s command (Genesis has the Lord speaking only to Adam).[22] When God curses, the order of Genesis 3 is reversed, as shown in the table below. The arrows show the order of the events.

A Comparison of the Order of Events in Eden According to Genesis & Josephus

Josephus.png Josephus understood the serpent to be an animal with the power of speech.[23] Being jealous of the man and woman the serpent encouraged the woman to violate God’s command.[24] As a punishment the serpent lost the ability to speak - and his legs - and became venomous.[25] The removal of the serpent’s power of speech is an addition to the account and seems to be Josephus’ way of explaining the means of the serpent’s success.[26] Josephus omits all mention of death being a result of Adam’s sin (Gen. 2:17; 3:19) a fact has led some scholars to conclude that Josephus believed that death was present before the Fall.[27] However, as Josephus does not actually say this in so many words it remains an argument from silence. Josephus may simply have omitted the references to death because he knew how controversial they would be with his Roman audience.

Cain and Abel

Josephus’ account of Cain and Abel is quite different from Genesis. The narrative is expanded in several places and the characters given more to say. Cain escapes the death sentence and his punishment is passed to his children down to the seventh generation. Instead of being concerned that all men would seek to kill him, Josephus’ Cain fears the attack of wild beasts, but is assured by the Lord not to worry.[28]

The genealogies are taken at face value by Josephus and (as Henry Morris notes) with no gaps.[29] Josephus himself calculated that only 5,000 years had passed from the creation of the world to his own day.[30] The longevity of the pre-diluvian patriarchs is also supported by appeals the testimony of extra-biblical historians:

Now I have witnesses to what I have said, all those that have written Antiquities, both among the Greeks and barbarians; for even Manetho, who collected the Chaldean Monuments, and Mochus and Hestiaeus, and besides these, Hieronymus the Egyptian, and those who composed the Phoenician History, agree to what I here say: Hesiod also, and Hectataeus, Hellanicus, and Acusilaus; and besides these, Ephorus and Nicolaus relate that the ancients lived a thousand years; but as to these matters let everyone look upon them as he thinks fit.[31]

The Sons of God

The “sons of God” of Genesis 6:1-4 are said to have been angels who interbred with human women, raising evil-natured offspring.[32] The Godly line of Seth are said to have been the rulers of the people.[33] Noah, seeing the wickedness of the offspring of the angels attempted to persuade them to reform. Fearing for the safety of himself and his family on the failure of his venture, Noah left their land.[34]

The Flood

A number of secondary sources are cited to support the biblical accounts, including that of the Flood, mentioning the name of the town near which the Ark lay at the time of his writing.[35] Concerning the ark he writes:

Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood and of the ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean; for when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus:- “It is said there is still part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.” Hieronymus the Egyptian, also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them, where he speaks thus:- “There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who has carried in an ark came on shore on top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses, the legislator of the Jews wrote.”[36]

However, the fact that Josephus has earlier mentioned that a pillar erected by Seth the son of Adam can still be seen in the land of Siriad tends to suggest that Josephus did not always check the accuracy of his sources too carefully.[37] He appears to be following Philo when he states that the Ark had four storeys.[38] The Flood itself was clearly global in extent, Josephus explaining that only eight people were saved because there was no other place of safety.[39]

Studies by scholars have shown that he had both a thorough understanding of Hebrew and Palestinian exegetical techniques.[40] Faced with the challenge of writing for a foreign audience he did not relapse into wholesale allegory[41] or omit large parts of the biblical account. Rather he strove always to be as faithful to the text as possible, omitting material only when absolutely necessary.[42] Even some of his more unusual interpretation are not without precedent and are possible renderings of the Hebrew text. The envious motive of the serpent,[43] while not explicitly stated in Genesis, is nonetheless implied and Josephus’ interpretation is quite plausible.[44] For this reason we can be relatively confident that his interpretations were representative of Palestinian Judaism in the first century.

Josephus and the Early Church

The use made of the works of Josephus by the early church fathers varied greatly. In the western church only Tertullian utilised him to any significant extent.[45] Minucius Felix cites him in support of his argument that the Jews foresook God before He forsook them.[46] Josephus was more widely read in the eastern church, but it was not until the time of Origen that his works had any influence on biblical exegesis.[47] Origen found in Josephus an extra-biblical source of historical information, and adopted many of Josephus’ additions to the biblical accounts.[48] When compared to the influence that Philo had on biblical exegesis, Josephus’ contribution was small. He was seen as a historical witness (particularly valuable in his contributions to chronology)[49] whereas Philo was viewed as a pattern for the allegorical method. For this reason it is unwise (as some Creationists are in the habit of doing) to exaggerate the impact of Josephus’ interpretation of Genesis on the early church simply because he is a more favourable witness.


  1. Schreckenburg, H. “Flavius Josephus,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. Vol. 2. pp.1132-1133.
  2. Josephus, Life, 1; William Whiston, The Works of Josephus Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987. p.1. In this translation the traditional reference is given first, followed by the reference to the Greek text paragraph number in brackets, e.g. Josephus, Antiquities, 1.1.2 (34).
  3. Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992. p.8.
  4. Mason, op.cit., pp.24-26.
  5. See further Mason, op.cit., pp.7-33
  6. Ibid, p.8.
  7. Ibid., pp.10-19.
  8. They were used, for example, by Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Eusebius and Jerome.
  9. Origen, Commentary in Matthew 10.17; Against Celsus 1.47 (Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF}, Vol. 4, p.416).
  10. Mason, op.cit., p.10.
  11. Ibid., p.36, but note also p.51, n.1.
  12. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd edn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. p.456.
  13. Schreckenburg, op.cit., p.1133; Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p.456.
  14. Mason, op.cit., pp.67, 213.
  15. Thomas W. Franxman, “Genesis and the ‘Jewish Antiquities’ of Flavius Josephus,” Biblica et Oreintalia, No. 35. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1979. p.9.
  16. Mason, op.cit., pp.69-71.
  17. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.2 (1.34)
  18. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.1 (1.29)
  19. Josephus, Antiquities, 1.2.3 (1.70).
  20. Josephus, Antiquities Preface 3, 4 (1.14, 20); H.W. Basser, “Josephus As Exegete,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987): 25.
  21. Basser, op.cit., 29. Also omitted are clothing with animal skins, the Cherubim and the possibility of Adam eating of the Tree of Life. Basser argues that these were omitted in line with Josephus’ objective to avoid enigmatic interpretations. Ibid., pp.29-30.
  22. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.2, 3, 4 (1.35, 37, 40); Basser, op.cit., 26.
  23. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.4 (1.41)
  24. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.4 (1.41-43)
  25. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.4 (1.50)
  26. Franxman, op.cit., p.62.
  27. Ibid., 63.
  28. Josephus, Antiquities 1.2.1 (1.52-59); Franxman, op.cit., 69-69.
  29. Henry M. Morris, Biblical Creationism: What Each Book of the Bible Teaches about Creation and the Flood. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. p.248.
  30. Josephus, Antiquities,Preface 3 (1.13)
  31. Josephus, Antiquities, 1.3.8 (1.107-108).
  32. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.1 (1.73)
  33. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.4 (1.87)
  34. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.1 (1.74)
  35. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.5 (1.92)
  36. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.6 (1.93-95)
  37. Josephus, Antiquities 1.2.3 (1.71); Franxman, op.cit., p.79.
  38. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.2 (1.77).
  39. Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.4 (1.89).
  40. Basser, op.cit., p.21.
  41. A good example of this is Josephus’ interpretation of the four rivers in Eden (Antiquities, 1.1.3 (38-39) which are based on etymology and not created by reading a Platonic philosophy into the text as Philo had done. Basser, op.cit., p.26.
  42. Basser, op.cit., pp.22, 27, 30.
  43. Josephus, Antiquities 1.1.4 (1.41-42).
  44. Basser, op.cit., p.27.
  45. Michael E. Hardwick, Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature Through Eusebius, Brown Judaic Studies 128. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press., 1989. p.112.
  46. Minucius Felix, Octavius 33 (ANF, Vol. 4, pp.193-194).
  47. Hardwick, op.cit., p.114.
  48. Ibid., p.116.
  49. Ibid., p.114. Josephus was used by both Theophilus of Antioch (Autolycus, 3.24-25) and Eusebius as a source of chronological data. Ibid., pp.11, 95.


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