Jesus as 'the Egyptian' of Josephus
Josephus tells us of an enigmatic yet familiar figure in both Antiquities and Jewish Wars he calls "the Egyptian". If you read Josephus closely he describes a precursor false prophet who Felix destroys in "the wilderness". Thereafter, a more dangerous false prophet called "the Egyptian" camps out on the Mount of Olives with 30,000 followers intending to attack Jerusalem and "procur[e] innovations and changes of the government" (i.e., liberate Jerusalem from the Romans). The similarity of this episode in Josephus to the story of John the Baptist and Jesus is hard to miss. Further, we find a reference to "the Egyptian" in Acts. Below are the salient points from the pertinent parallel passages from Antiquities and Jewish Wars.
Antiquities XX 8:6.
- And now these impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would exhibit manifest wonders and signs, that should be performed by the providence of God.
- [Many people followed the deceivers into the wilderness.] Felix brought them back, and punished them.
- Moreover, there came out of Egypt ... to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives ... .
- He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down ... .
- Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him.
- But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more.
Jewish Wars II 13:4-5.
- There was also another body of wicked men gotten together ... . These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government ... .
- [They led the people out] into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty. But Felix thought this procedure was to be the beginning of a revolt; so he sent some horsemen and footmen both armed, who destroyed a great number of them.
- But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him ... .
- [The Egyptian took his multitude to] the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place ... .
- But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive ... .
Jewish Wars II 13:4-6
And again deceivers and men of low cunning, with the pretext of doing good, redeeming the people, they urged them on the spot [to seek] a change of regime and they taught them to fight. They led them out into the desert as if there the Lord would show them tokens of liberty. Among them was an Egyptian, a magician who had adopted the guise of prophet. Gathering 1000 dupes he led them into the desert as far as the Mount of Olives, whence he intended to get into Jerusalem by stealth, to seize the Roman guards and rule as king. And Felix had news of this and met them with one thousand Romans. A battle took place and he defeated them. Only the Egyptian escaped with 50 [men].
The country was cleared of these. But as in a sick body the illness departs from some limbs but others swell, so here also magicians, wizards and every malefactor combining together led many into sedition, summing them to liberty and threatening with death those who submitted to the Roman authorities.
** Josephus' Jewish War and Its Slavonic Version: A Synoptic Comparison by Flavius Josephus, edited by H. Leeming and K. Leeming (Brill 2003) at p. 275-276.
Let's combine the narrative from the three separate tellings "the Egyptian" episode by Josephus:
- There was a body of wicked men and deceivers who deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration and led them out into the wideness [John the Baptist?].
- The deceivers pretended to do good by redeeming the Jewish people.
- These deceivers sought a change of government.
- Felix attacked and destroyed them.
- Among the deceivers was a false prophet called "the Egyptian" [Jesus?]. He and 30,000 followers encamped on the Mount of Olives with intentions of capturing Jerusalem. [Slavonic Josephus says 1,000 men; however, the stated objective of seizing Jerusalem and installing the Egyptian as king and the reaction thereto by the Romans is more in line with a much larger force.]
- The Egyptian intended to "get into Jerusalem by stealth, to seize the Roman guards and rule as king".
- Felix, with the Roman military and assisted by the Jewish people (notice the parallel to John's description of the arrest of Jesus John 18:1-12), attacked the Egyptian who ran away never to be seen again.
I first came across this material from Josephus six years ago and put it aside for the simple reason that Antonius Felix was prefect of Judea 52-56 CE and Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem during the 30's. Josephus connects the Egyptian incident with Felix so I accepted his words at face value (meaning it could not relate to Jesus) and moved on. However, the issue gnawed at the back of my mind all these years. Over time, as my view of Jesus sharpened, I concluded he was a Jewish revolutionary of Hasmonean descent and that he styled himself as an agent of God's righteousness against forces he saw corrupting the Jewish people as his ancestors Mattathias Maccabeus and Phineas had done before him. Mattathias Maccabeus and Phineas were both warrior priests who led Jewish armies in battle. The Egyptian described by Josephus, although not identified as a priest, styled himself both as a prophet and militant Jewish nationalist, which prompted me to study further the potential connection to Jesus.1/ The smoking gun, in my view, is the Slavonic Josephus version of the Testimonium Flavianum (discussed below).
"The Egyptian" in Acts
Adding to the intrigue is one reference to "the Egyptian" in Acts of the Apostles. When the Romans took Paul into custody at the Temple in Jerusalem, the arresting Roman officer asked Paul of Tarsus if he was the Egyptian "who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness"? See Acts 21:38. According to Acts, Paul was arrested while Felix was prefect. By my timeline, Paul of Tarsus was arrested no earlier than 54 CE. How long is "some time ago"? In my timeline Jesus attempted his revolution in 36 CE or eighteen (18) years before Paul of Tarsus was arrested.
The Talmud and Jesus as purveyor of Egyptian black magic
According to Prof. Peter Schafer in his book Jesus in the Talmud, here is a reference from the Talmud to Jesus:
They hanged Yeshu on the Sabbath of the Passover. But for forty days before that a herald went in front of him (crying), "Yeshu is to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and seduced Israel and lead them away from God. Anyone who can provide evidence on his behalf should come forward to defend him." When, however, nothing favorable about him was found, he was hanged on the Sabbath of the Passover
Baraitha Bab, Sanhedrin 43a, emphasis added; Dr. Schafer gives a slightly different translation in his book, ibid at page 64. Two other names in the Talmud are thought to refer to Jesus the Nazarene: Yeshu Ben Pandira (or Pantera) and Ben Stada, who are not one in the same person if the Talmud is taken literally. More on these two in the Talmud. As to Ben Stada, the Talmud contains an interesting reference: "But did not Ben Stada bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches [in the form of charms] upon his flesh? He was a fool, answered they, proof cannot be adduced from fools." MISHNAH.[104b], Emphasis added. Notice the similarity between the charges against Jesus found in the Talmud versus those recorded in Josephus against "the Egyptian"--i.e., a sorcerer who attempted to secure Israel and lead the people away from God. They are striking. Also, it is important to note that leading Pharisee rabbis were the authors of the Talmud.
The Apocryphon of John (aka The Secret Book of John)
The Apocryphon of John is a text of Christian apocrypha that was found with the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. Therein, a Pharisee refers to Jesus as a deceiver and liar.
And it happened one day, when John, the brother of James - who are the sons of Zebedee - had come up to the temple, that a Pharisee named Arimanius approached him and said to him, "Where is your master whom you followed?" And he said to him, "He has gone to the place from which he came." The Pharisee said to him, "With deception did this Nazarene deceive you (pl.), and he filled your ears with lies, and closed your hearts (and) turned you from the traditions of your fathers."
The Apocryphon of John, verse 1, emphasis added. This is another piece of evidence demonstrating the Pharisee position on Jesus: i.e., he was a deceiver and false prophet who attempted to lead Israel astray.
Josephus the Pharisee & the Testimonium Flavianum
Based on the Talmud, the NT, and Christian apocrypha, it is clear the Pharisees thought Jesus was a deceiver and liar who tried to lead the Jews astray. Josephus, by his own admission, was a Pharisee and loyal Roman client. He would have viewed Jesus in the same manner as his Pharisee brethren. Dr. Ian Adamson states it best: Josephus "was a proud Judeophile in Rome, who would have also thought that Jesus was illegitimate, a false prophet and a sorcerer." Link. One need only read Against Apion, which was written to defend the Jewish religion, to confirm that Josephus remained true to the Jewish religion even when he resided in Rome. See also Josephus' criticizing Roman prefect Tiberius Alexander (Philo's nephew from Alexandria) for failing to "continue in the religion of his country." Antiquities XX 5:2 (100). Having concluded that Josephus was an adherent to the Jewish religion within the Pharisee faith his entire life, I must also conclude the Testimonium Flavianum is a forgery. It's anathema to the Pharisee view of Jesus and Josephus would never write something so contrary to Jewish law, as it insinuates Jesus may have been a God.
Slavonic version of the Testimonium Flavianum
It is rather surprising how different the Slavonic version of the Testimonium Flavianum is from the accepted version of this text. Not only are they different but the Slavonic version weaves in facts belonging to "the Egyptian". I'd go a step further and say that the Slavonic version of the Testimonium Flavianum is the smoking gun connecting Jesus to "the Egyptian". Here is the pertinent text from Slavonic Josephus. To be clear, this section from Slavonic Josephus addresses Jesus directly.
At this time there appeared a man, if it is proper to call him a man, whose nature and form were human and whose deeds were divine. And he worked wonderful and powerful miracles. Therefore, it is impossible for me to call him a man. Then again, in view of his common nature, they shall not call him an angel [either]. And everything, whatever he did, he did by some unseen power, by word and command. Some said to him, "[Our] first lawgiver has risen from the dead and has been demonstrating many curses and skills." Others thought that he was sent from God. But he was in much opposed to the law and did not observe the Sabbath according to the ancestral custom, yet did nothing dirty [unclean], nor with use of hands but worked everything by word only. And many of the people followed and listened to his teachings. And many souls were aroused, thinking that by him the Jews would free themselves from the hands of the Romans. But it was his habit rather to remain in front of the city on the Mount of Olives; and there he also [freely] gave cures to people. And there 150 servants and a multitude of people joined him, seeing his power and how by word he did everything he wished. They bade him enter the city, kill the Roman troops and Pilate and reign over these. But he did not care [to do so]. Later, when news of this came to the Jewish leaders, they assembled to the chief priests and said, "We are powerless and [too] weak to oppose the Romans, like a slackened bow. Let us go and inform Pilate what we have heard; and we shall be free of anxiety; if at some time he shall hear [of this] from others, we shall be deprived of [our] property, ourselves slaughtered and [our] children exiled."
Here are the markers demonstrating a merging of the figure of Jesus with "the Egyptian" in Slavonic Josephus.
And they went and informed Pilate. And he sent and killed many of the people and brought in that wonder-worker. After inquiring about him [Pilate] understood that he was a doer of good, not evil, [and] not a rebel nor one desirous of kingship and he released him. For he had cured his wife who was dying. And he went to the usual places and performed his usual deeds. And [once] again, as more people gathered around him, he became renowned for his works more than all [others]. [Again] the lawyers [i.e., Pharisees] were struck with envy [against him]. And they gave 30 talents to Pilate that they should kill him. And he took it and gave them liberty to carry out their wishes themselves. And they [the Jews] crucified him against [the] ancestral law.
Josephus' Jewish War and Its Slavonic Version: A Synoptic Comparison at p. 261-262.
If one works "miracles" but does evil acts (as Slavonic Josephus attributes to Jesus) then the implication is that this individual is involved in black magic and is a sorcerer. Other than the working of miracles, none of these points appear in the standard version of the Testimonium Flavianum.
- He worked miracles but was not divine;
- He opposed Jewish law;
- "They" wished to overthrow the Romans and make Jesus king;
- Jesus set up his base of operations on the Mount of Olives where "a multitude of people joined him".
Josephus and his Roman "assistants"
If one accepts that the standard version of the Testimonium Flavianum is a forgery, the question becomes who were the culprits? Josephus states that he was adopted into the Roman imperial family by Vespasian and that he "presented" his histories to the emperor upon completion. Vitae Ch. 65 (361). Josephus also admits to the use of "assistants" to write his histories. Against Apion Book I, 9 (50). Presumably these helpers were scribes also in the employ of the imperial family (as was Josephus). The Romans knew full well the propaganda value of histories (see histories written by Julius Caesar). The entire point of the Roman imperial family funding Josephus' writing of his Jewish histories was to justify the Roman subjugation and eventual destruction of Israel. It is a reasonable assumption that the imperial assistants to Josephus also were there to ensure that the histories reflected favorable upon Rome.
Antiquities of the Jews was published late in the reign of Domitian (around 93 CE). Nero (emperor 54 to 68) was recorded as having persecuted Christians in Rome during his reign. Although later sources claim Domitian also persecuted Christians, Roman histories by contemporaries of Domitian are devoid of such accounts. See Did Domitian Persecute the Christians? by Ogden and Jenkins (1999). What we can conclude though is that the empire saw the Christians as a source of potential problems for Roman administration by the time of Domitian, both in Rome and in the provinces. Rome didn't fan the passions of dissident groups within their empire. A growing segment of the Roman population regarded Jesus as a God (or at the very least a prophet sent by God). This explains why the Romans wished to give Jesus favorable treatment despite the fact that Josephus the Pharisee would have viewed him as a false prophet and sorcerer. In my view, Romans working for the imperial government are the most likely source of the forged Testimonium Flavianum, either the assistants of Josephus or other Roman agents working later when Christianity became the official state religion of Rome.
Josephus disguised his views on Jesus under the figure of the "the Egyptian"
If one accepts that Josephus shared the Pharisee view of Jesus as a deceiver and false prophet, why then would he disguise his description of Jesus in the character of "the Egyptian"? Why not just come out and say what he thought of Jesus? I suggest the presence of his Roman overlords as the reason. They were determined to either write Jesus out of the histories of Josephus or give Jesus sympathetic treatment. Thus, in order for Josephus to records his true thoughts, it was necessary to employ the device of "the Egyptian" as a pseudonym for Jesus.
The solid data points connecting Jesus to the "the Egyptian" lead me to conclude that there is a high probability that they are one in the same person despite Josephus placing the episode in the prefecture of Felix (instead of Pilate).
Related Article: Jesus, the Samaritans, and the Egyptian.
FN 1 While writing Herodian Messiah, I tried to estimate the number of hard core followers Jesus had with him when he arrived at Jerusalem in 36 CE to attempt his revolution. Josephus says there was one Roman cohort stationed in Jerusalem. A standard cohort is 500 soldiers. This was a detached cohort that probably had cavalry attached to it plus extra support units so let us put the number of Romans stationed in Fortress Antonia at 700. Romans military units stationed in the provinces always worked with local axillaries. I further estimate Jewish / Herodian auxillary soldiers in Jerusalem for Passover were triple the number of Romans, i.e., another 2100. Plus, the New Testament refers to Temple guards who participated in the arrest of Jesus. Herod's Temple in Jerusalem was a massive complex. As a bald guess let us put the number of lightly armed Temple guards at 500. What number of very lightly armed followers would Jesus need to command to overcome these professional units (especially the heavily armoured Romans)? I pegged the desired superiority at 5 to 1 (at a minimum). My estimate of Roman and Roman allied military forces in Jerusalem for passover comes to 3300; however, that does not include other Roman allied units stationed in Judea at fortresses such as Herodium, Jericho, and Masada. The Roman allied soldiers in those nearby locations could have been summoned to Jerusalem in case of threat within 24 to 72 hours. Jesus first marched into Jerusalem on a Sunday (Palm Sunday) but was not arrested until the following Thursday (i.e., four days later), thereby giving the Romans time to move forces located elsewhere in Judea to Jerusalem. To account for Roman allied military forces stationed in Judea outside of Jerusalem, I added another 1500 to the previous total bringing to 4800 the estimated number of Roman / Jewish soldiers that could be brought to bear on Jesus and his followers over Passover. 4800 x 5 = 24,000. That figure jogged my memory of Josephus' story of the Egyptian and his 30,000 followers up on the Mount of Olives.