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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 ... .

Let's combine the narrative from the two 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?].
  • These deceivers sought a change of government.
  • Felix attacked and destroyed them.
  • Another false prophet arose called "the Egyptian" [Jesus?]. He and 30,000 followers encamped on the Mount of Olives with intentions of capturing Jerusalem.
  • 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. Nonetheless, the issue gnawed at the back of my mind all these years. Two seemingly innocuous items brought Josephus' discussion of the Egyptian back into focus for me. 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. Interesting but more facts are needed to infer a connection of "the Egytpian" to Jesus.

"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; 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". They are striking.

Conclusion
Josephus, by his own admission, was a Pharisee. They clearly viewed Jesus as sorcerer who had attempted to lead Israel astray. Josephus was also a loyal Roman client. In my view, Jesus attempted a revolt against Rome and this is why he was crucified. It makes perfect sense to me that Josephus would take a dim view of Jesus exactly in line with the material contained in the Talmud. For this reason, I believe a viable case can be made that Jesus was in fact "the Egyptian" described in Josephus, even though Josephus masks the reference by connecting the incident with Felix instead of Pilate.

JJR
1-3-2012

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