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The Reliance of Luke-Acts on the Writings of Flavius Josephus

We have alluded in many places in this website the reliance of Luke-Acts on the works of Flavius Josephus. Here we try to give the reasons why this is a very likely possibility.

That there is some sort of a relationship can easily be seen by anyone familiar with the two authors' works. For instance, we find some historical references in Luke that could have been taken from the writings of Flavius Josephus. Luke's references to the census by Quirinius (Luke 2:1-3) and to the massacre of the Jews by Pilate (Luke 13:1) was given in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (18:1 & 18:3:2).

So the next question is this: how goes this "relationship"? Did Luke rely (either "copied" or "remembered") on Josephus? Or did Josephus copy Luke? Or could the relationship be explained by simply the authors sharing a similar cultural milieu and having access to similar sources? There are some compelling reasons for believing that Luke was "familiar" with Josephus' works. The reasons are as follows:

  • Many details of the gospel of Luke have uncanny parallels in Josephus' works.
  • Luke hit upon the exact same names of people Josephus used in his narratives. Since the names given by Josephus were merely examples (i.e. they were not that outstanding), someone with access to a different source would have come up with a list of different names.
  • The manner in which historical errors were made in Luke-Acts betrays his source as Josephus.
  • Perhaps more importantly, the similarities in uncommon vocabulary between Josephus and Luke, form the final proof of latter's dependence on the former.
All these cannot be explained by Josephus having copied Luke, or that they both shared similar sources. The conclusion that Luke used the works of Josephus (Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews and the autobiographical The Life of Flavius Josephus) means that Luke's literary works (the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles) must be written later than Josephus. Josephus completed his autobiography (the latest of his three work mentioned here) circa 95 CE. This means that the earliest date possible for the composition of Luke's gospel is 95 CE.

Uncanny Parallels

Many of the the "details" in the gospel of Luke have parallels in Josephus's works:

  • We have already seen one on the story of Jesus's childhood, the only such account in the canonical gospels which closely parallels Josephus' story of his own childhood in his The Life of Flavius Josephus.

  • In Luke 9:52-53, an incident is told in which the Samaritans stopped Jesus and his Galilean followers from entering the village because Jesus was with an entourage heading for Jerusalem. This incident parallels very closely the incident in Antiquities 20:6:1 where Josephus relates how some Galileans on the way to Jerusalem were refused entry into a Samaritan village by its inhabitants.

  • Another instance is in Luke 7:1-10 which tells of Jesus healing the centurion's servant. Luke also added that the centurion was a friend of the Jews (Luke 7:4). The centurion reminds one of the story in Josephus' Jewish War 2:10:4 in which the Roman legate of Syria was a friend of the Jews. When emperor Gauis wanted to place his statue at the Temple, the legate explained his predicament to the Jews, "For I am under authority, as well as you." This quote is very similar to the one Luke put in the mouth of the centurion: "For I myself am a man under authority.." (Luke 7:8)

It is easier to explain that Luke utilized these events from the various books of Josephus than to imagine it the other way round, that Josephus utilized one book (Luke's gospel) and "remembered" to put bits and pieces of it into his various writings.[1]

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Reference to Same Names

We find that Luke hit upon the exact same persons that Josephus tied to certain events.

  • Josephus, in his description of the Roman census under Quirinius in 6 CE, tied the revolt following this to a unified group of revolutionaries under Judas the Galilean (Antiquities 18:1:1-6, Jewish War 2:8:1). That he did this is in line with his whole strategy of trying to exonorate most Jews from the blame of the revolt of 70CE. In other words he wanted to show that the revolts were a result of the agitation of some groups within Palestine and not a spontaneous ethnic uprising. As part of this, Josephus presented the census in 6 CE and the revolt following it as a watershed event and in many ways a precursor to the revolt six decades later. Yet modern studies have thrown doubts on this version of events; there were many different revolutionary movements in first century CE Palestine, ranging from peasant to (probably) even aristocratic ones. Thus it was Josephus who put emphasis on the census and the revolt following it by Judas the Galilean, another historian with a different axe to grind would not have placed similar emphasis on this census or on one person.

    We have already seen that Luke made some historical guffaws in his tying Jesus' nativity to the census in Quirinius. Over here we only need to point out that Luke, too, placed much emphasis on the census (Luke 2:1-3), as the watershed event during the birth of Jesus (it was in Luke's gospel, the reason, why Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethleham). Furthermore, in the sequel to the gospel of Luke, he alluded to the very same name Josephus had used when referring to the revolt after the census: Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37).

  • Josephus mentioned that there were many "deceivers and imposters" who led the Jewish people into revolt. He gave, as examples, three personalities: Judas the Galilean, who appeared circa 6 CE as we have seen above; Theudas, who led a group of revolutionaries (circa 44-46 CE), tried to miraculously part the Jordan river and was beheaded by the Roman governor Fadus (Antiquities 20:5:1); and an unnamed Egyptian prophet, who wanted to bring down the walls of Jerusalem by a miracle, who had his followers killed by the soldiers of Felix, the Roman procurator from 52-59 CE.

    Interestingly, of all the names of the "many deceivers and impostors", these are the very three names Luke used in his narratives in Acts (Acts 5:36-37 and Acts 21:38). These strongly suggests again that Josephus' works were Luke's only sources for that period.[2]

Note too that in these cases, it is Josephus that had the fuller accounts. Luke's narratives normally had no more than one or two sentences. As is the normal rule, the copier normally abreviates his source, not the other way round.

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Historical Errors in Luke

Thirdly when Luke got his historical facts wrong or confused, he seems to have committed them in the way that reminds one of a reader conflating information from something he had read in the past:

  • The case of the Egyptian prophet is revealing. This is how the story goes in Acts. Here the story is weaved into a narrative of Paul's mission. Paul, after being rescued by the Roman garrison from a mob of angry Jews (Acts 21:27-32), spoke to them in Greek, wherein the Roman tribune asked of him:

    Acts 21:38
    You know Greek? Aren't you, then, the Egyptian who stirred up trouble some time ago and led four thousand men of the sicarii out into the desert?

    That Luke had a mistake here is obvious. Josephus was the first person, as far as we now, to use the term sicarii [a word borrowed from Latin for short daggers: sicae] as a technical term to describe a Jewish revolutionary group. The terms fits aptly the description of them by Josephus (see next paragraph), i.e. as assassins. You would not expect these people to follow a prophet into the wilderness! Luke on the other hand betrays a very confused use of the word and him placing the sicarii in the desert indicates he knows of their name but not exactly who these people were. Thus it is obvious that Luke had erroneously used the term that he borrowed from somewhere.

    Now let us look at Josephus' accounts (in both Antiquities and Jewish War). In Antiquities 20:8:5, Josephus describes the men of the sicarii (whom he named as such in Antiquities 2:8:10) as being men who carry very short, easily concealable, daggers who mingled with the crowds during festivals and stabbed their opponents in broad daylight. Then following this, as a separate account, in Antiquities 20:8:6, Josephus mentioned some "impostors and deceivers" who persuaded the multitude to follow them into the desert. Then he described, again as a separate account immediately following this (Antiquities 20:8:6), the unnamed Egyptian who "led the multitude" to the Mount of Olives.

    So too in his Jewish War we find the same sequence of events, again describing them as separate incidents with different people. In War 2:13:3-5, the sicarii, the mob being led out into the desert and the case of the Egyptian prophet were described in quick succession. Josephus was careful not to conflate these three accounts as one, for he mentioned that the sicarii were guerillas, while the Egyptian was a "false prophet".

    In Luke's narratives in Acts, all these three accounts have been conflated into one. It was the Egyptian who led the Sicarii out into the desert! This can easily be explained by the postulate that Luke had read Josephus some time in the past and simply confused the three separate accounts as one. It is not easily explainable any other way. For instance, if Luke did not know Josephus, it would require the occurence of a large number of simultaneous coincidences for this to happen: he would some how have to link the Egyptian with the sicarii and then connect the Egyptian with the desert. The idea that Josephus copied Luke would be even more absurd. This would require that Luke first used a term (sicarii) he did not fully understand in a context that was completely wrong and then for someone like Josephus who knew about sicarii to use an obviously erroneous and highly abbreviated passage as his source.[3]

  • Another historical mistake by Luke always betrays his source. This time it is in a speech he attributed to the Pharisee Gamaliel:

    Acts 5:36-37
    For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.

    By referring to the census, Luke was obviously alluding to the events in 6 CE and he had event this following the revolt by Theudas. Yet Josephus described the events of Theudas within the procuratorship of Fadus. Now Fadus was procurator in the years 44-46 CE, i.e. four decades after the revolt by Judas the Galilean. Yet Luke had Theudas' revolt happening before that of Judas the Galilean.

    The explanation that there was another Theudas before Judas the Galilean is weak. For there is no historical attestation to one Theudas that preceded Judas the Galilean. Furthermore to have two revolutionaries with the same name doing the exact same things would make for an uncanny co-incidence. It is more likely that Luke simply had his dates confused.

    Furthermore we find in Antiquities 20:5:1-2 the probable source of Luke's mistaken sequence of events. In it Josephus first described the incident with Theudas under Fadus. Then in describing the exploits of Fadus' successor, Tiberius Alexander, he mentioned that the latter had slain the sons of Judas the Galilean. He went on to explain that these were the sons of Judas the Galilean who caused the revolt under Quirinius.

    Thus we can easily see how someone who may have read Josephus some time in the past had confused the sequence of events from memory and had Judas following Theudas; following the sequence of writing but not the chronological one.[4]

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Similarities in Unique Vocabulary

The similarities in usage of certain words in Josephus and Luke could not be attirbuted to chance. Some examples:

  • During Roman times, Judaism were increasingly being seen as a "superstition" or a "religion" by outsiders. The Romans held philosophy to be a higher ideal than superstition or religion. One of the main themes of Josephus' works was a monumental attempt to redefine Judaism in philosophical terms familiar to the Romans. Thus he used the word schools (haireseis, the singular form is hairesis) to describes the various factions within Judaism; presenting them as philosophical schools rather than sects. Thus the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes were presented as various schools within Judaism.(Antiquities 18:1:2-5). It is important to note that we do not know of any contemperaneous authors that used this term for the various Jewish sects. Josephus nomenclature was thus, original and unique.

    Yet Luke used the very same term haireseis to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Acts 5:17, 15:5 and 26:5). In Acts 5:17, Jesus followers were opposed by the "school of the Sadducees". In Acts 15:5 it was some believers who were from the "school of the Pharisees" who insisted that new converts be circumcised. Unlike Josephus, who weaved the term within the context of aim of presenting these sects as respectable philosophical schools, Luke's use of the term is nonchalant as though it was self evidently appropriate.

    The point then is this, Luke used the term heireseis to describe the various sects within Judaism as though it was already a term already being used, not as one who invented it. Yet apart from Luke, the terminology was unique to Josephus.

  • Furthermore in Acts 26:5, Luke had Paul call the Pharisees, the "most precise school" among the Jews. Yet this word "precision" is also one of Josephus' key terms in describing the Pharisees (Jewish War 1:5:2, 2:8:14, Antiquities 17:2:4, Life of Josephus 38)

    Again, outside of Luke-Acts, the description of the Pharisees as the most "precise school" is unique to Josephus. Josephus' use of this, again is easily understandable, in view of his overall aim. Luke's use is, as above, like one who has borrowed the term from elsewhere.

So, Steve Mason, associate Professor of Humanities at York University, Ontario asks: "If Luke did not know of Josephus' work, how did this language suggest itself to him?"[5]

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1.Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p245-246
2.Mason, Josephus and the New Testament: p205-210
3.ibid: p211-213
4.ibid: p208-211
5.ibid: p214-223

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