I was reading The Life of Flavius Josephus recently, and I came across the statement: “…it is prohibited by our laws even to spoil our enemies;” [The Life of Flavius Josephus; sect. 26]. At this point it was noted by the editor: “I take it that Josephus, having been now for many years an Ebionite Christian, had learned this interpretation of the law of Moses from Christ, whom he owned for the true Messiah…”
I thought about this and wondered, if true, how differently Josephus’ works might be understood, especially concerning the “Testimonium Flavium” that has more recently been criticized. Would any serious scholar reject even the whole of it, if it were known of certainty that Josephus was an Ebionite?
Ebionites had worshiped as one body with early believers before breaking off from them, presumably over the idea that Jesus was God in the flesh. Of course, if true, Josephus could no longer be strictly understood as a 1st century non-Christian witness to Jesus, even though Ebionites held strong doctrinal differences to traditional Christians, just as 1st century unbelieving Jews had. Indeed, there are other matters within Josephus’ works that could point more to a Christian perspective rather than a 1st century unbelieving Jewish understanding. For example, consider the excerpt above: “…it is prohibited by our laws even to spoil our enemies.” Where is this stated in the Law of Moses? During the wars in which the Jews undertook, if they were victorious, they nearly always spoiled their enemies, Jericho being the single example where they did not (if memory serves). However, if we turn to Jesus’ teaching, we can appreciate Josephus’ understanding:
Matthew 5:43-44 (NET) 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 5:44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,
Reading the The Life of Flavius Josephus, we find on a number of occasions Josephus kept on forgiving his enemies who had sought over and over to kill him, but Josephus kept putting his care into the hands of God by releasing those who wanted to take his life, examples of which can be found in sections 51 and 64 of his Life.
Matthew 18:21-22 (NET) 18:21 Then Peter came to him and said, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” 18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!
While there are examples of David and others forgiving their enemies, it is difficult to find a command in the Law to do so. However, such things can clearly be understood in the light of Jesus’ own teaching, but the 1st century teaching of the rabbis was to love one’s neighbor but hate one’s enemy (Matthew 5:43).
In a previous post I had argued that Josephus descended from the priestly line of Annas, the High Priest who, with Caiaphas, had been instrumental in crucifying Jesus. In that post I argued that Josephus seemed to want to hide his identity with him, but I thought it was because the High Priests might have been generally blamed for the Jewish War that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, if Josephus was an Ebionite, he may not have wanted to be associated with the works of the Annas priesthood by reason of their hatred for Jesus, whom Ebionites received as their Messiah, albeit, not God in the flesh.
In addition, Josephus mentions in section 38 of his Life… that two High Priests had tried to do him harm—Jesus son of Gamala (Gamaliel) and one Ananus. The names of these two priests are put together again in Wars of the Jews on two occasions, showing they were considered the leaders of the Jewish High Priesthood—or powers behind the throne, so to speak in the same manner that Annas had been when he was alive. Notice:
“The best esteemed also of the high priests, Jesus the son of Gamala, and Ananus the son of Ananus, when they were at their assemblies, bitterly reproached the people for their sloth, and excited them against the zealots;” [Josephus: Wars of the Jews; iv, 3, 9]
“Accordingly, Jesus, the eldest of the high priests next to Ananus, stood upon the tower that was over against them and said thus…” [Josephus: Wars of the Jews; iv, 4, 3]
I make this point to show, that although these two High Priests spoke against Josephus even permitting his enemies to kill him if necessary, Josephus was kind to them in his writing about their deaths showing how honorable they were and highly esteemed among the people. He even claimed Ananus’ death marked the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem:
“I should not mistake if I said that the death of Ananus was the beginning of the destruction of the city, and that from this very day may be dated the overthrow of her wall, and the ruin of her affairs, whereon they saw their high priest, and the procurer of their preservation slain in the midst of the city. He was on other accounts a venerable, and very just man; and besides the grandeur of that nobility, and dignity, and honor, of which he was possessed, he had been a lover of a kind of parity, even with regard to the meanest of the people; he was a prodigious lover of liberty, and an admirer of democracy in government; and did ever prefer the public welfare before his own advantage, and preferred peace above all things; for he was thoroughly sensible that the Romans were not to be conquered.” [Josephus: Wars of the Jews; iv, 5, 2]
Yet, elsewhere Josephus describes this very same person as:
“…a bold man in his temper, and very insolent… he was a great hoarder up of money: he therefore cultivated the friendship of Albinus and the high priest [Jesus] by making them presents; he also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of the people, and went to the thrashing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants, without anyone being able to prohibit them; so that [some of the] priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food.” [Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; xx, 9, 1-2]
Was Josephus lying in Wars or in Antiquities in his account of Ananus? Neither! For look at what he says in his Life concerning matters such as the above:
“for although it be necessary for a historian to write the truth, yet is such a one not bound severely to animadvert on the wickedness of certain men,—not out of any favor to them, but out of an author’s own moderation.” [The Life of Flavius Josephus; sect. 65]
Now, having related the above, was Josephus and Ebionite? He may have been when we consider some of the things he said and did. How he treated his open enemies and his continually placing his own life in the hands of God testifies to his being a very religious man. Certainly, if he was a descendent of Annas the High Priest, he never acted like him, nor any of his sons. But, before I close this lengthy post I would like to show one more detail that may concern the Annas family and Theophilus in particular, for it is he to whom both the books of Luke and Acts were written.
Just before the war began, Josephus went to Rome when he was 26 years old (cir. 63 CE). He mentions certain priests of his acquaintance that were sent in chains to Rome to plead their case before Caesar, and the matter of concern occurred under Felix’s governorship [Life of Flavius Josephus; sect.3]. Josephus says he had gone there to plead for them. He gained an audience with Caesar’s wife and thereby obtained not only their release but “many presents” besides. Could any of these “presents” that Josephus obtained be the release of Paul? Certainly, if Paul’s case had ever been heard before Nero, certain priests and Felix, himself, could have been held in contempt by Nero and punished. The book of Acts ends with Paul waiting for two years for his hearing before Nero. According to Richard Anderson’s blog (found HERE), a law had recently been passed about the time of Paul’s imprisonment at Rome that his accusers could be criminally prosecuted, if the Paul could show he was placed in bonds fraudulently. Hence, Josephus’ possible mission to Rome was to obtain Paul’s release and thereby secure the freedom of all the High Priesthood who might have been held responsible for his imprisonment, if the hearing had not gone according to their liking.