Previous Page

New Testament Parallels to the Works of Josephus (Continued)


Index to the Parallels

King Herod
The Slaughter of the Innocents
The Census of Quirinius
Jesus at Twelve
The Fifteenth Year of Tiberius:  Pilate, Antipas, Philip, and "Lysanius"
John the Baptist
All Things in Common: The Essenes
Insurrection in the City under Pilate
James the Brother of Jesus
Theudas, and Judas the Galilean
The Famine under Claudius
The Death of Herod Agrippa I
Expulsion of the Jews from Rome
The Egyptian
Ananias the High Priest
Felix the Procurator, and his wife Drusilla
Festus the Procurator
Agrippa II and Berenice
The Widow's Mite and Sacrifices
Competing Missionaries and the Circumcision Requirement for Converts
Living as a Pharisee
Inner Court of the Temple Forbidden to Foreigners

Theudas, and Judas the Galilean

Acts 5:33-39
    When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill him. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he wa killed, and all who followed him were 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. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them -- in that case you may even be found fighting against God."

Antiquities 20.5.1 97-99
    During the time when  Fadus was procurator of Judea  a certain enchanter named Theudas persuaded a great number of the people to take their belongings with them and follow him to the Jordan River.  He told them he was a prophet and that he would, by his own command, divide the river and afford them an easy passage through it. And many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to gain the result of this wildness, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them captive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus's government.

Antiquities 20.5.2 102
    And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain. This was the Judas who caused the people to revolt against the Romans when Quirinius came to take an account of Judea, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, who were crucified by order of Alexander.


    Theudas was one of the many charismatic figures described by Josephus who gained large followings for short periods of time before succumbing to the forces of the procurator. Some of these are explicitly linked to the revolutionaries, particularly as war approached during the time of Nero, and some just seem to be religious leaders, such as the Samaritan killed by Pontius Pilate. They all seemed to claim that Deuteronomy 18:15-22 refers to them..
    Judas the Galilean again makes his appearance in these parallels, although this is the only time he is mentioned by name in the New Testament. Here, two of his sons are crucified; but others would go on to take part in the War. The procurator involved here, Alexander, governed from 46 to 48 CE.
    There is a famous discrepancy here between Josephus and the quotation from Acts. The speech made by Gamaliel occurs in the 30's CE, not long after Jesus' death. But Theudas arose under Fadus, who was procurator from 44 to 46. So Gamaliel's speech is anachronistic. Furthermore, Gamaliel here states that Judas the Galilean arose after Theudas, in the time of the census; but this was in 6 CE.
    The usual scholarly positions have been taken to alternately preserve or attach the accuracy of the New Testament. Perhaps there was another, earlier Theudas that Josephus forgot to mention; perhaps the text of Acts has been corrupted in transmission. One interesting theory is that Luke (the author of Acts) read Josephus erroneously. Supporting this notion is the mention of Judas the Galilean's sons at section 102, just a few lines after the end of the description of Theudas at 99. A misreading or poor notetaking could cause someone to think Theudas appeared before Judas. It is rather hard to see, though, how someone could so badly misread the Antiquities in this way, including ignoring the references to the procurators. A reasonable secular explanation is that Luke used some other, less reliable history that bore similarities to Josephus; perhaps this also served as one of Josephus' sources.
    The import of the parallel is that Jesus was not seen by his contemporaries as a wholly unique figure. There were other charismatic leaders whom the people believed to be prophets and miracle-workers. Like the others, he fell victim to the procurator. What made Jesus different in the eyes of his contemporaries was that his followers did not cease their activities even after his death.

The Famine under Claudius

Acts 11:27-28
    At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a server famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Antiquities 20.2.5 49-53
    Her arrival was very advantageous to the people of Jerusalem; for a famine oppressed them at that time, and many people died for want of money to procure food. Queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of grain, and others of them to Cyprus to bring back a cargo of dried figs. They quickly returned with the provisions,  which she immediately distributed to those that need.  She has thus left a most excellent memorial by the beneficence which she bestowed upon our nation. And when her son Izates was informed of this famine, he sent great sums of money to the principal men in Jerusalem.

Antiquities 20.5.2 101
    The successor of Fadus was Tiberius was in that (or their) administration that the great famine occurred in Judea, during which Queen Helen bought grain from Egypt for large sums and distributed it to the needy, as I have stated above.

              The date of the famine described by Josephus is uncertain, due to a difficult text. If under Alexander it occurred between 46 and 48 CE, but it may have started in Fadus' time, as early as 44. The Emperor Claudius ruled from 41 to 54, matching the dating in Acts. This also helps to date the activities of the apostles prior to Acts 11.


 The Death of Herod Agrippa I

           Acts 12:20
                Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king's country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, "The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!" And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

    Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361
    Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato's Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar, for whose well-being he'd been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner." When he had said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground  he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign. He ruled four years under Caius Caesar, three of them were over Philip's tetrarchy only, and on the fourth that of Herod was added to it; and he reigned, besides those, three years under Claudius Caesar, during which time he had Judea added to his lands, as well as Samaria and Cesarea. The revenues that he received out of them were very great, no less than twelve millions of drachmae. But he borrowed great sums from others, for he was so very liberal that his expenses exceeded his incomes, and his generosity was boundless.

    Agrippa the First was the grandson of Herod I and Mariamme; his father was Aristobulus. Josephus informs us he reigned from 37 to 44 CE, dates which are confirmed by many coins found in Israel. The reference in Acts thus helps to date early Christian activities, particularly the travels of Paul. Josephus does not describe settling a conflict with Tyre and Sidon as Acts does, but the two accounts do agree that Agrippa was being hailed as a god at the moment he was struck down by pain.
    A few lines after this section, Josephus tells us that Agrippa left four children: three daughters, Berenice, aged 16, Mariamme, aged 10, and Drusilla, aged 6; and a son, Agrippa II, aged 17. Three out of these four are mentioned later in Acts.

Expulsion of the Jews from Rome

Acts 18:1-2
    After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he fund a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. 

Antiquities 18.3.5 81-84 (related)
Tiberius...ordered the whole Jewish community to leave Rome. The consuls drafted four thousand of these Jews for military service and sent them to the island of Sardinia; but they penalized a good many of them, who refused to serve for fear of breaking the Jewish law. Thus the Jews were banished from the city for the wickedness of four men.

    Josephus describes a (temporary) expulsion of Jews from Rome under Emperor Tiberius, but not a later one under Claudius (reigned 41 to 54). However, the Roman author Suetonius, writing several years after Josephus, briefly mentions that Claudius expelled the Jews from the city because of "continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus."
    This is puzzling, as Claudius was a firm friend of the Jews, Josephus emphasizes; in fact, he was a close friend since childhood of Agrippa I, who assisted him in gaining the throne. Josephus' view of Claudius is unrelievedly favorable. DOes this mean that Josephus did not want to mention this anti-Jewish action because of a bias toward Claudius? Or does it mean the action was so small and irrelevant to the Jews as to be neither worth mentioning nor able to have any effect on Josephus' opinion of the emperor?
    A modern analysis of all available evidence is given in Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's Paul: A Critical Life (1996). The most probable scenario we can construct, he determines, is that the action of Claudius was small, and that he expelled from the city only Jews who were not Roman citizens. Christian missionaries would have been in this group; they may have been causing conflict with the Jews of the city by their proselytizing. Murphy-O'Connor dates this action to 41, but doubts that Luke is accurate in associating it with Paul's arrival in Corinth.

The Egyptian

 Acts 21:37-38
    Just as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, "may I say something to you?" The tribune replied, "Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led four thousand of the sicarii out into the wilderness?" 
Antiquities 20.8.5 169-172  (War 2.13.5 261)
   These deeds of the robbers filled the city with all sorts of impiety. And now conjurers and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would show them manifest wonders and signs that would be performed by the providence of God. And many that were persuaded suffered the pain of their folly,  for Felix brought them back and punished them. At this time there came out of Egypt to Jerusalem a man who said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lay a distance of five furlongs from the city. He said that he would show them that  at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, through which he promised that he would procure them an entrance into the city. Now when Felix was informed of this he ordered his soldiers to take up their weapons, and with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem he attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He slew four hundred of them and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped from the fight and did not appear any more. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans.
    The time Josephus describes is the latter 50's CE, which is consistent with the quoted Acts incident; the latter is depicted as occuring  in 57/58 CE.  As in the case of Theudas, Jesus' followers are confused with the deceivers who were seen as a threat to Rome. Josephus does not say that the Egyptian was interested in revolt, but he sandwiches the account between two descriptions of the rebels. On the other hand, Acts explicitly states the Egyptian's followers were sicarii, the knife-wielding terrorists that assassinated Roman sympathizers. It's easy to speculate that this equation by the Romans of "popular leader mortal threat" had a strong influence on how Jesus and his followers were treated by those in power.

Ananias the High Priest

Acts  23:2
   While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, "Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God." Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth.
Acts 24:1
     Five days later the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and an attorney, a certain Tertullus, and they reported their case against Paul to the governor. 

Antiquities 20.5.2 103
    Herod, king of Chalcis, now removed Josephus son of Camei from the high priesthood and appointed Ananias son of Nedebeus as successor.

    Ananias was appointed in 49 CE and was succeeded in 59 by Ishmael son of Phabi. This dating accords with the account in Acts, which is set in the time of Felix (52-59).
    Ananias was very wealthy and influential, and an ardent anti-revolutionary. He used all his skill to keep the revolution in check; but he was killed at the start of the war in 66 by Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (War 2.17.9  441).
    The hostility of the high priest to the Christians matches that described by Josephus when he describes the death of James at the hand of the high priest Ananus (note the spelling; this is not Ananius). It's a good possibility that Ananus learned from the failure the priests had had with Paul, whom they also, according to Acts, had desired to kill. Paul had been saved by a centurion who brought him to the governor, Felix. In the case of James, Ananus waited until there was no governor -- Festus died in office -- and while the nation was temporarily without Roman authority he had the chance to seize and kill James without interruption. But he did not get away with it -- the hasty action cost him the high priesthood when the new governor arrived.

Felix the Procurator, and his wife Drusilla

Acts 24:24
    Some days later when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus. And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, "Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you." At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul, and for that reason he used to send for him very often and converse with him. 

Antiquities 20.7.1 137-144
    Then Claudius sent Felix, the brother of Pallas, to manage the affairs of Judea. After completing the twelfth year of his reign, Claudius granted to Agrippa the tetrarchy of Philp, and Batanea, and added to them Trachonites with Abila, which had been the tetrarchy of Lysanius...
    After receiving this gift from the emperor, Agrippa gave his sister Drusilla in marriage to Azizus king of Emesa, who had consented to be circumcised. ...And when Agrippa had received these countries from the emperor, he gave his sister Drusilla in marriage to Azizus, king of Emesa, upon his consent to be circumcised. For Epiphanes, the son of king Antiochus, had refused to marry her, and although he had promised her father to convert to the Jewish religion he would not now fulfill his promise....The marriage of Drusilla to Azizus was not long afterward dissolved upon the following occasion: While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla and fell in love with her; for she exceeded all other women in beauty. And so he sent to her one of his friends, Atomus, a Jew from Cyprus who pretended to be a magician, who endeavored to persuade her to leave her present husband and marry Felix. He promised, that if she would not refuse, he would make her a very happy [felix] woman. Accordingly she acted ill, and because she desired to avoid the jealousy of her sister Berenice -- for she was very ill treated by her on account of her beauty -- was prevailed upon to transgress the laws of her forefathers, and to marry Felix. She gave birth to a son by him whom she named Agrippa. How this young man and his wife perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius,  in the days of Titus Caesar, shall be described later.

    Felix was procurator from 52 to 59/60 CE. The first date is specified by the passage cited here, the twelfth year of Claudius. The second date is not given anywhere in Josephus (although he does tell us Felix's governorship ended under Nero, who became emperor in 54). The latter date is a speculation derived chiefly from the end of procuratorial coins after 58 CE and an interpretion of a passage in Eusebius. For more details, see Murphy-O'Connor's Paul.
    During the time of Claudius Felix was well-behaved, but under Nero, like the other governors, he bloomed into full corruption. Paul was arrested in 57 CE, near the end of Felix's term in office, so the report that he wanted Paul to bribe him agrees with Josephus' account, as does the implied criticism of Felix for lacking "justice" and "self-control."  For more on Felix see Causes of the War.
    Drusilla, sister of Agrippa II,  married Felix about 54 CE, at the age of 16. We don't hear anything else about her in Josephus after this.

Festus the Procurator

Acts 24:27-25:2
    After two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; and since he wanted to grant the Jews a favor, Felix left him in prison. Three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem where the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews gave him a report against Paul. 

Antiquities 20.8.9-10 182-186

    When Porcius Festus was sent by Nero as successor to Felix, the leaders of the Jewish community of Caesarea went up to Rome to accuse Felix.
    ...When Festus arrived in Judea, it happened that Judea was afflicted by robbers, for all the villages were being set on fire and plundered by them. And then it was that the sicarii, as they were called, who were robbers, grew more numerous.

    Festus was procurator from 59/60 to 62 CE. The first date is deduced as described in the discussion on Felix. The date of the end of  Festus' reign is more certain; he died in office and was replaced by Albinus, who Josephus tells us interrogated the soothsayer Jesus at the Succoth celebration four years before the war, i.e., in autumn 62 CE (War 6.5.3 305).
    Thus Acts gives us one fairly firm date: Paul was brought before Festus in Jerusalem in 59/60 CE, and not long afterward was sent to Rome to appeal to Nero. Since we are also told Paul was two years in prison prior to Festus' arrival we know he was arrested in 57/58 CE; aand we know from Acts 28:30 that he spent two whole years in Rome, putting the end of Acts, and the New Testament, at c. 62 CE.
    While at the moment of Festus' arrival Acts depicts leaders of the Jews concerned with accusing Paul to Felix in Caesarea, Josephus notes they had more serious social concerns: justice for the misdeeds of Felix and some control over the anarchy arising from the "robbers," many of whom, such as the sicarii, were anti-Roman revolutionaries; there was also ethnic rioting in Caesarea.

 Agrippa II and Berenice

    Acts 25:13
    After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Berenice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus. SInce they were staying there several days, Festus laid Paul's case before the king...
Acts 26:27-28
    Paul said,..."King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe." Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" 

Antiquities 20.7.3 145
    Berenice lived a widow for a long time after the death of Herod [king of Chalcis], who had been both her husband and her uncle. But when the report circulated that she had sexual relations with her brother [Agrippa II], she persuaded Poleme, the king of Cilicia, to be circumcised and to marry her, supposing that in this way she would prove those accusations about her to be false. Poleme was prevailed upon chiefly on account of her riches. Yet this marriage did not endure long; for Berenice left Poleme, so it is said, out of licentiousness. He abandoned his marriage and the Jewish religion at the same time.

    Herod, King of Chalcis, was the brother of Agrippa I, who was the father of Berenice and Agrippa II. So this Herod was Berenice's uncle, and eventually became her husband. He died in 43 CE, when Berenice was 15. After her brief second marriage, Berenice did not marry again. Her brother Agrippa II never married. Neither of them had any children we know of.
    The brother and sister tried to keep both Florus and the rebellion in check, but ultimately did not succeed; they lost much in the war. But Agrippa continued to be recognized by the Romans as king of his lands, as his coins attest.
     Agrippa II was a friend of Josephus, over time writing him sixty-two letters (Life 1.65 364). This forms a connection between Josephus and Paul at only one degree of separation: we are certain Josephus knew Agrippa well, and we also know that Paul discussed Christianity with Agrippa, if the Acts report is accepted. It's quite possible, then, that Josephus knew of Paul's activities.

The Widow's Mite and Sacrifices

    Mark 12:32-34, 41-44  (Luke 21:2-4)
    Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other' ; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength," and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' -- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and scrificies." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."...
    He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money in the the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contriubted out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

 Antiquities 6.7.4 147-149

    But the prophet Samuel replied [to Saul], "God is not delighted with sacrifices, but with good and with righteous men, who are such as follow his will and his laws, and never think that anything is well done by them but when they do it as God had commanded them: that he then looks upon himself as affronted, not when any one does not sacrifice, but when any one appears to be disobedient to him....
    "And that he is delighted with those that still bear in mind this one thing, and this only, how perfrom whatever God commands for them to do, and to choose rather to die than to transgress any of those commands; nor does he require so much as a sacrifice from them, of if they do, though it be a small offering, he more galdly accepts this from  poverty, than those that come from the richest men."

    Within 10 verses of each other, Mark links a reference to Samuel concerning the  necessity of sacrifices with the idea of the relative value of sacrifices by the rich versus the poor.  The interesting parallel here is that Josephus discusses the same two concepts within a few lines of each other. Was there a reading of the biblical text by the Rabbis of the time by which both these authors were influenced?
    The biblical text in question is 1 Samuel 15:22: "And Samuel said, 'Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.' "
    In Mark, the questioner of Jesus (not Jesus himself) refers to this passage without attribution, associating "obeying the voice of the Lord" to three commandments: monotheism, to love the Lord fully, and to love one's neighbor. Josephus is quoting Samuel as part of his retelling of the Bible for a Greek-speaking audience, and in doing so he explicates various passages in such a way that only a knowledgable reader could tell where the Biblical text ends and Josephus' explanation begins. In the present case, Josephus is clearly concerned that people could read this text and meaning that sacrifices to the Lord are unnecessary. In a long-winded elaboration of the text, Josephus assures the reader this is an inaccurate conclusion. The important concept is obedience -- and, of course, as the Lord commanded sacrifices, to be obedient one must sacrifice. Sacrifice is only one example of obedience, hence "obedience is greater than sacrifice", as the whole is greater than the part.
    The question of the necessity of sacrifices is followed in each by the value of an individual sacrifice. The logic of Josephus reconciling these two is simple: "the Lord does not demand sacrifices...but if one does sacrifice..." If one does, the correct attitude is more important than the monetary value. While one would expect Jesus to make the same point, Mark instead relates the simple mathematical observation about the relative percentage of net wealth of the offerings of the rich versus poor. But we tend to read between the lines and take it that Jesus is pointing out the greater piety of the woman, even if in absolute terms her sacrifice is of lesser value: the point made by Jospehus.
    In Mark (and Luke) these discussions of sacrifice precede Jesus' prediction of the fall of the Temple and its subsequent supernatural rebuilding. When Josephus wrote, the Temple was already destroyed and the question of the need for sacrifice would have been of great urgency, which no doubt influenced the writing of this passage. Most scholars believe Mark and Luke probably assembled their gospels also after the Temple was destroyed; the parallels with Josephus here may reflect the real contemporary debates on whether one can worship without the Temple sacrifices.

Competing Missionaries and the Circumcision Requirement for Converts

    Acts 15:1-20

    Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
    ...Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses."
     James replied, "...It is written...all other peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called....Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."

 Izates, King of Adiabene - Ant. 20.2.3-4 34-48

    Now during the time when Izates lived at Charax Spasini, a certain Jewish merchant named Ananias got among the king's women and taught them to worship God according to the Jewish religion. Through them he became known to Izates, whom he persuaded in like manner...
     When Izates perceived that his mother was highly pleased with the Jewish customs, he was eager to embrace them entirely ; and as he supposed that he could not he thoroughly a Jew unless he were circumcised, he was ready to have it done.
    But when his mother understood what he planned she endeavored to stop him, and said to him that it would bring him into danger. As he was king, she said, he would  gain the enmity of his subjects when they learned that he was so fond of  rites that were strange and foreign  to them, and they would never bear to be ruled over by a Jew. With this she for a time persuaded him to refrain. He related what she had said to Ananias, who completely agreed with what his mother had said and went so far as to threatened that to leave the king unless he complied with this advice. Ananias said that he was afraid that if the affiar would become public he would himself be in danger of punishment for having caused it, having been the king's instructor in  indecent practices.
    And he said that the king could worship God without being circumcised, if he had fully committed himself to the laws of the Jews, for this was superior to circumsicion. In addition, he said that God would forgive him for not performing the rite as it was omitted out of necessity and for fear of his subjects. So the king for a time complied with the persuasions of Ananias.
    But afterwards, as he had not completely left off his desire, a certain other Jew that came out of Galilee, whose name was Eleazar and who was esteemed to be very strict in the learning of his country, persuaded him to perform the rite. For when Eleazar entered into the palace to greet the king and found him reading the law of Moses, he said to him, "You do not see, O king, that you are doing injury against the greatest of the laws and so against God himself. For you ought to not only read the law but also to practice what it commands. How long will you remain uncircumcised?  If you have not yet read the law concerning circumcision, and so do not know what an impiety you are guilty of, read it now."
    When the king had heard what he said, he delayed no longer, but retired to another room, sent for a surgeon, and did what was commanded. He then sent for his mother and Ananias his tutor, and informed them that he had performed the rite. At once they were struck with great astonishment and fear lest this be found out...
    But it was God himself who prevented what they feared; for when Izates and his sons fell into danger, he preserved them when it seemed most impossible, and demonstrated thereby that the fruit of piety does not perish for those that fix their eyes upon him and trust in him alone. But these events we shall relate hereafter.
    Here, in Acts and in Josephus, we see opposing missionaries competing for converts to Judaism and applying their own interpretations of what conversion means. The competition of Acts appears graphically in Paul's letter to the Galatians. We see how a missionary will visit Gentiles eager for a new way of life, convert them successfully, and then find another missionary following on his trail with a different version of Judaism.
    In fact, the pattern is the same in Acts, Galatians and in Josephus: the first missionary is more lenient, letting the converts obey only the Jewish laws they are comfortable with, and then the second missionary follows with an insistence on a stricter observance of the law. One can interpret this in two or three ways. The tendency to greater strictness may be natural among recent converts. Or the stricter missionary may deliberately be following on the footsteps of the more liberal ones so as to undo the damage, as the Jerusalem Christians seemed to be following Paul's trail. If one were suspicious enough, one might suspect the two groups purposely worked together, the first ones luring converts with promises of easy acceptance, and once these have been snared, the second group comes on to give the new converts the true story.
    A particularly difficult requirement for male converts was circumcision (Genesis 17:11). Thus in the story of Izates it is easier for the king's mother and other women of the court to be converted first -- this may also have been a deliberate missionary tactic, to convert the females first, and then let them pressure the males to follow suit.
    King Izates is allowed to remain uncircumcised because of his difficult situation. This accords with the Rabbinic view that a commandment need not be performed if it endangers life. (A succinct discussion of this point is given by Louis Feldman in his footnote to this passage in the Loeb Edition of Antiquites 20.)
    However, there is more thought behind this leniency than just fear, for the missionary Ananias first emphasizes that devotion is more important than circumcision: a view similar to that of Paul and Barnabas in Acts (compare the concept "obedience is more important than sacrifice" discussed above). It is only an addition to this point that the specific situation of the danger to king and country is turned to by Ananias. It could well also have been argued, by both Ananias and Paul, that even Gentiles who are not kings are in danger from their society if they embrace foreign rites -- at a minimum, they risk an outcast status -- and, consequently, can also be pardoned for not following the entire law.
    The line between the stricter (the Pharisees, Eleazar) and the more lenient (James, Ananias) of the missionaries was therefore really in the degree of suffering that the potential convert may be expected to bear before the Lord will grant absolution from the necessity of performing a certain commandment. Must life itself be in danger, or is heavy psychological and social injury sufficient? Josephus, consistent with other statements, suggests that either concept is acceptable, but that nonetheless the stricter one adheres to the commandments the better, and that if one does perform them, the suffering will not be as great as feared, for the Lord will protect the faithful.
    To mention some other interesting points: in Acts it is the Pharisees who insist on the circumcision requirement, and in Josephus Eleazar is identified as one who is known to be strict in the law, which is Josephus' conventional description of a Pharisee. Together these recall to one the statement of Jesus in Matthew 23:15: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert."
    And the tomb of King Izates' mother Helena (or so it is thought) may be visited in Jerusalem in the present day. See the Israel Archaeological Sites.

Living as a Pharisee

Paul as a Pharisee - Acts 26:4 - 5

 "All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the first among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have know from the beginning, if they are willing to testify, that I lived according to the strictest sect of our religion, as a Pharisee."
 Josephus as a Pharisee -  Life 12
 "So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which resembles the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them."


       Both Josephus and Paul emphasize (1) their Pharisee life began when they were young, and (2) that they conducted themselves as Pharisees. These statements may indicate something of how the Pharisees were regarded in the middle of the first century.
    Seniority seemed important: those who are late to the Pharisaic way of life are apparently not regarded as highly as those who pursue that path from their earliest adult years. This seniority carries a certain status and gives extra weight one's opinions.
    And Pharisaism was a way of life. It is not described here as a political party or a church. There seem to be no entrance requirements or initiation rites: one does not "join" the Pharisees as one might join, say, the Rosicrucians. Both Paul and Jospephus describe a mode of being considered a Pharisee just by conducting oneself as one. The word Paul uses in Greek for this is zao, "I lived" as a Pharisee; Josephus decided "conduct" himself, katakolouth=F4n, as one. Both authors call the Pharisees a  hairesis, a school or sect (the derivation of the word connotes "taking a choice").
    And Paul describes the Pharisees as the most "strict", akribos, sect, the same Greek word Josephus frequently uses to describe them.

Inner Court of the Temple Forbidden to Foreigners

         Paul is Seized for Violating the Trespassing Ordinance - Acts 21:26
           ...the Jews form Asia, who had seen him in the Temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, "Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our Law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the Temple and has defiled this holy place." For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the Temple.
        The Inner Temple
                                      War 5.5.2 1-4
           One proceeded across this [the outer court] to the second court of the Temple, which was surrounded by a stone partition, three cubits high, of elegant workmanship. In this at regular intervals stood blocks of stone stating the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Latin letters, that no foreigner was permitted to enter the holy place.
                                   = ; Antiquities 15.11.5 417
           Within it [the outer court] and not far distant was a second one, to be gone up to by a few steps, which was encircled by a stone partition with an inscription prohibiting the entrance of a foreigner under threat of the penalty of death.

The Romans Permit the Prohibition and its Death Penalty - War 6.2.4 124-126

        Now [the Roman General] Titus was deeply affected with this state of things and reproached John and his party, and said to them, "Have not you, vile wretches that you are, by our permission put up this partition-wall before your sanctuary? Have not you been allowed to put up the stones on it at due distances and on them to engrave in Greek, and in your own letters, this prohibition that no foreigner should go beyond that wall? Have not we given you leave to kill such as go beyond it, though he were a Roman? And what do you do now, you pernicious villains? Why do you trample upon corpses in the Temple? And why to you pollute this holy house with the blood both of foreigners and of Jews themselves?"

       Several portions of these stone warnings have been found by archaeologists, including a complete inscription on a slab of hard limestone found in 1871 and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The latter reads: "No foreigner may enter within the partition and embankment that surround the holy place. Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death."
        The threat of death was made with the approval of the Romans, as we learn from the speech by Titus Caesar to the Jerusalem revolutionaries late in the War -- a speech for which Josephus himself served as interpreter (or as fabricator). In the case of Paul, no one was put to death as a result of the perceived transgression; even had it occurred, the punishment for abetting a trespass is unclear. Certainly Paul, not being a-foreigner, could not be put to death. Perhaps it was the gray area that Paul's offense fell into, coupled with the conflicting jurisdiction in this special case of Roman versus Jewish law, that left Paul in prison for so long before being sent to Rome to appeal to the Emperor.
        The two accounts of Josephus vary somewhat with each other and with the existing stone. The War passage does not explicitly give the death penalty, and the words translated here as "foreigner" differs in all three: in the War, it is "one of another tribe (allophulos)",  in the Antiquities "one of another nation (alloethnes)", and in the existing stone, "one of another race (allogenes)."

 The Flavius Josephus Home Page                                                        Previous Page