Did Luke use Josephus? An excerpt.

It might surprise some people who think that a late dating for the book of Acts is a novel scholarly movement that the question of Luke and Josephus is not new. In reality, the late-dating position goes back at least to nineteenth century German higher criticism, and the Luke-Josephus relation was discussed in literature centuries ago, anticipating the modern period, and was also discussed in the early church.[1]

Some think that Steve Mason has recently (in the grand scheme) settled the issue in his Josephus and the New Testament (1992, 2nd ed. 2003), where he does conclude Luke knew something of Josephus, but is somewhat non-committal in his introduction of the issue (p. 251–293). Has he? And what about the issue in general? It’s true that this is the potentially strongest argument for a late-first century (post early 90’s AD) or second century date (such that the whole of monographs like the late Richard Pervo’s Dating Acts are subordinate to this one issue).[2] I have numerous thoughts on the issue, and they will make their way into my own research. For now I want to highlight a section of an excellent new book by Jonathan Bernier entitled Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament (just published with Baker books).

               This is a reproduction of Part 1 “The Synoptic Gospels and Acts,” Section 1 “Synchronization,” sub-heading “Did Luke Know Josephus”?

It has been argued that Luke-Acts evinces knowledge of Josephus’s works, and more specifically, his Antiquities, written ca. 93. Robinson deals with Lukan knowledge of Josephus in one sentence, dismissing it with the suggestion that it had been largely abandoned by then-contemporary scholarship. Such dismissal is not sufficient for our purposes, in no small part because more recent scholarship has sought to resuscitate the argument that Luke knew Josephus. [endnote: here Bernier notes Mason’s work, cited above]. Nonetheless, this section argues that a negative judgment on the matter of Lukan use of Josephus remains most fully warranted by the relevant data.

Insofar as the subject matter covered by Josephus partially overlaps with that covered by Luke, we should hardly be surprised to see some coincidences between their respective texts. The question is whether these coincidences suffice to affirm Lukan knowledge of Josephus. Only two areas of possible contact between Luke-Acts and Josephus merit an extended discussion: (1) the treatment of Quirinius and the census and (2) the accounts of Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and “the Egyptian.” [endnote: here Bernier cites the relevant texts in Luke-Acts and Josephus, and Mason’s work]. Both Luke and Josephus report that Quirinius undertook a census. Luke situates it during the reign of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE), but Josephus places it following the deposition of Herod Archelaus in 6 CE. We need not determine which of these reports might be accurate and which might be inaccurate. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that to the extent that Luke’s account is fundamentally irreconcilable with Josephus’s, we have reason to doubt that either one stands as a source for the other.

This doubt only increases the closer we look at the data. Josephus and Acts mention only three—and precisely the same three—rebel leaders who operated in the decades before the Jewish War: Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and the anonymous figure known only as “the Egyptian.” The question before us is whether this convergence is best accounted for by Luke’s use of Josephus’s writings. The logical alternatives to Lukan dependence upon Josephus are that Josephus used Luke-Acts, or that Josephus and Luke-Acts each had independent reason to single out these three figures. The data alone can aid us in determining which among these alternatives is most likely. Much as with the case of the Quirinus data, the most obvious barrier to affirming either that Luke is dependent upon Josephus or Josephus upon Luke comes from the famous contradiction between the two authors. In Acts 5:36–37, Luke’s Gamaliel I places Theudas’s revolt before that of Judas the Galilean, but Josephus reports that Judas’s revolt predated Theudas’s by about forty years. It has been argued that this contradiction actually demonstrates that Luke knew Josephus, because at one point Josephus discusses Theudas shortly before discussing Judas’s sons. [endnote: here he cites Pervo]. The argument is that Luke was confused: he read about Theudas, saw a reference to Judas, and concluded that Theudas must have preceded Judas. Although this is possible, it does not seem probable. Turning to a place where Luke clearly diverges from Josephus in order to demonstrate that Luke knew Josephus only demonstrates how weak the hypothesis is. [endnote: here he cites Karl Armstrong, Dating Acts 86–93] For the same reason, we should be wary of affirming Josephus’s dependence upon Luke-Acts. Indeed, the divergence gives us reason to suspect that Luke and Josephus are independently reporting upon the same course of events, possibly using some sources in common.

Such suspicion of independence only increases when one asks a crucial empirical question: Why the Egyptian? For the sake of argument, if we suppose Josephus’s independence or priority, why did he single out the Egyptian? Why, if there were innumerable rebel figures, did Josephus choose a figure whose name he did not know? The most intelligible answer is that the Egyptian’s operations were remembered as in some way significant. These operations loomed large in the memories of those who lived through the period, even though his name did not. Josephus singled out this figure because his sources, oral or written, did so before him; he may have selected Judas and Theudas for much the same reason. This raises the possibility that Luke, too, emphasizes these three figures on the basis of his own sources. Indeed, given their precise combination of similarities and differences, it is likely that both Luke and Josephus drew upon different sources from the decades leading up to the Jewish War that nonetheless emphasized Judas, Theudas, and the Egyptian. Certainly, the crucial differences between Luke and Josephus in the treatment of these figures should make us wary of positing that either is directly dependent upon the other. Such wariness is likewise well warranted regarding the relationship between Luke-Acts and Josephus more generally.

Cumulatively, while we cannot exclude Lukan knowledge of Josephus, neither is such knowledge more than a possibility. The relationship between Luke-Acts and Josephus’s writings should be considered nonprobative for establishing the compositional date of the former.

This is a good summary of the issue as it impinges on the Date of Acts. Karl Armstrong covers it in more detail in his monograph Dating Acts; I think more can be said (at least it has to be recognized that Bernier excludes a logical possibility that Luke and Josephus are not always referring to the same people [while probability seems to be in favour of the position that they are]), but the critical points are made well here.

If Luke did not use Josephus–and I do not think he did–there is no singularly compelling terminus ad quem (date after which) Acts must have been written. It may have been, but competing hypotheses begin to eclipse. I think the Ramsay-Harnack tradition of dating the work very early makes the most sense and is highly compelling. Implications vary.


[1] For example, in Contra Celsum Origen mentions both Luke and Josephus (but does no critical investigation of their potential relation). And while admittedly much pre-modern interest in one of the more relevant texts of Luke-Acts in relation to Josephus—the latter half of Acts 5—concerns the question of obeying God rather than man [Acts 5:29], John Calvin does mention the Josephus/Luke issue in that context [Calvin Acts I.153–54]).

[2] Before one bandies about Pervo’s name, it is worth knowing that he was a convicted sex offender of children. Pervo does make this argument and has a good summary of the position, essentially relying on Mason.

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