Among Jewish writers who possessed information necessary to speak with any degree of accuracy, there is only one. Of course, I refer to Josephus, the son of Matthias. He was by his mother descended from the Asmonian family, which for a long time had the supreme government of the Jewish nation. Josephus was born in Jerusalem in the year 37 AD. This was four years after the death of Christ and the establishment of the church. James was beheaded in he same city when Josephus was seven years of age. He made such progress in school that, at the age of fourteen, the high priests and some of the principal men of the city came to consult him about the right interpretation of the law. At the age of sixteen, he retired into the wilderness, where he spent three years in seclusion. Having learned fully of the three sects, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, he, at nineteen, determined to follow the rule of the Pharisees. Thus he entered public life.
Governor Felix had sent some priests to Rome to be tried before Caesar, and Josephus, being then twenty-six years old, resolved to go to Rome and plead their cause. He had a bad voyage; the ship was wrecked; and out of six hundred on board, not more than eighty were saved. He met in Rome the emperor’s wife, and through her interest procured the release of his clients. Upon his return to Judea, he found things in great confusion. His people were revolting against Roman rule. After the war began, he was sent to take command of forces in Galilee, and there he fortified the cities as best as he could from the attacks of Rome. He was finally shut up in a city for forty-seven days, and then he took refuge in a deep cavern with forty other men of prominence. A woman revealed his hiding to Roman authority and only Josephus and one other escaped death. He was present when Titus marched against Jerusalem and he saw the ruin of his city and his country. After the war, he went to Rome and was made a citizen. He drew an annual pension the remnant of his days and dies in the year 100.
He was prominent as a great writer, and herein he is best known to us. His works are considered authentic. He wrote History of the Jewish War, The Jewish Antiquities, and his Autobiography. In all his writings, he had but little to say about Jesus. Well might we expect to look to him for an account of the stirring events of the early church, but in this we are sadly disappointed. Perhaps there is a good reason. He could have given no truthful account of Jesus or the church which would not have been a story of shame for the sect to which he belonged. His chief purpose was to elevate his own people in the minds of both Greeks and Romans, who hated them most bitterly. Hence the best policy was that of silence regarding the Christ.
Others have adopted the same policy toward those who claim to be Christians only. Experience has taught them that discussion is fatal to their views, and their efforts are centered on fighting Christianity by letting it alone.
The silence of Josephus and all early Jewish writers is illustrated by the following story: Less than a hundred years ago, the Congregationalists and the Baptists of England sent each a deputation of two ministers to visit the United States to ascertain the true state of religious societies in the new world as respects doctrines, practices, and parties. They were then to report the same, truthfully and faithfully, to the nation of Great Britain. They came and later made a voluminous report. In this country, there was a community of Christians of about 150,000 members, with various periodicals promulgating their views through every state and territory of the Union. They were, however, unpopular with the leaders of these two sects which nicknamed them “Campbellites” and their profession, “Campbellism.” One of their teachers had said: “The most successful way of fighting Campbellism is to let it alone.” In giving a full and accurate report of religious societies in America, the Congregationalists had this to say: “In this disorganized state, Mr. Campbell came among them (the Baptists) with his new lights, and nothing now is heard amongst them but Campbellism, as it is called, the people of this denomination, and especially the teachers, had made too much of their peculiarities as Baptists. Campbell came amongst them, and made everything of them, and has succeeded to an alarming extent. He denounces everybody; he unsettles everything, and settles nothing: and there is great present distraction and scandal.”
The Baptists made the following report: “In the State of Kentucky there was some distraction in the churches in consequence of the introduction of Campbellism.”
Do not wonder then that Jesus, the apostles, and the ancient Christians received so little consideration from Josephus. Human nature still runs in its ancient channels. But he does corroborate the Bible in his discussion of many matters. His testimony is all the stronger because it was never intended to strengthen the sacred oracle. In giving an account of a war between Herod the Tetrarch and his father-in-law, Aretas, King of Petrea, he tells of the intrigue between Herod and his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. While old Herod was visiting Rome, it was agreed that when he returned home she would go and live with him. A part of the contract was that the daughter of Aretas was to be put away. A war arose between Herod and his father-in-law and the former’s army was practically destroyed.
Josephus says: “But some of the Jews were of opinion that God had suffered Herod’s whole army to be destroyed as a just punishment on him for the death of John, called the Baptist.”
He also says, “Herod had killed John who was a just man, and had called upon the Jews to be baptized, and to practice virtue.”
The details of all the above are not mentioned by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but they do tell of the incestuous marriage described. Here, there is perfect agreement on matter of fact, and it is evident that the reports are quite independent of the other.
Josephus also gives an account of the death of James, the Lord’s brother. In the account he calls him “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James.” This shows us that these two persons, and especially Jesus, were well known in the heathen world.[For much of this sermon I have quoted and copied statements made by brethren A. Campbell and J. W. McGarvey.]
This lesson was edited in the scripture quotations provided from the KJV to the NKJV.
From Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons – Volume 3, lessons delivered at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville Tennessee between March 18th and April 1st 1928