Rebels, Bandits, Frauds, Charlatans and Other Wicked Men in the works of Flavius Josephus

In this guest post, David Blocker presents a table (attached here) in which he compares all the descriptions of the so-called “Wicked Men” found in Josephus’ works, including also the description of Jesus known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Blocker’s idea (borrowed from Thackeray) that Josephus had two Greek speaking assistants who were responsible for quite a lot of the stuff present in his historical works is interesting, as is his conclusion that the Testimonium Flavianum deviates from the other descriptions of “wicked men” found in Josephus and accordingly is a later addition to the Antiquities of the Jews. Over to Blocker …


Rebels, Bandits, Frauds, Charlatans and Other Wicked Men in the works of Flavius Josephus

A Repetitive Literary Formula That Confirms the Testimonium Flavianum is an Interpolation

 A Guest Post by David Blocker 

Scattered throughout the historical and autobiographical works attributed to Flavius Josephus[1], are short narrations describing the rise and fall of the rebels, bandits (Greek: lestai), charlatans, frauds and impostors (Greek: gontes) who plagued 1st century Judea. Flavius Josephus believed these men were responsible for the outbreak of the Jewish revolt that led to the subjugation and destruction of his beloved Jerusalem[2].

These narrations can be categorized into two distinct groups

One group occurs early in Jewish War and the corresponding section of Antiquities of the Jews. These are brief summaries of the careers of assorted insurgents who were usually reported to possess great physical strength and a great desire for attaining “kingship” or “royal prerogative”[3]. Other than these two features, these descriptions do not adhere to a standardized literary format.

The second group of descriptions of Rebels, Bandits, Frauds, Charlatans and Other Wicked Men were written using a standardized literary formula. The Wicked Man was introduced and his career was recounted according to a standard pattern: the troublemaker was named or described, followed by a brief account of how he made extravagant claims or promises in order to attract disciples, whom he then led into peril. When the troublemaker and his dupes came to the attention of the Judean and Roman authorities, they were summarily dealt with and usually came to a violent end. This repeated narrative formula is used in the Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, and in Josephus’ Vita.

Book 18 of Antiquities of the Jews contains passages that briefly describe the activities of Jesus[4] and John the Baptist[5]. The paragraph about Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews is called the Testimonium Flavianum. These passages, at least on first glance appear, to have been written using the literary formula that was used to describe the activities of Josephus’ Wicked Men.

I assembled a table using all the examples of the Wicked Men literary formula in the works ascribed to Flavius Josephus. Each column of the table contains a passage from the works of Flavius Josephus describing the activities of a troublemaker. The passages have been broken down into smaller blocks of text which deal with particular topics or contain words which are shared by other Wicked Men narratives. These blocks of text can be arranged into parallel rows. The blocks of text within a row share common features which are listed in the cells of the first column of the table. The table demonstrates that the narratives describing Josephus’ Wicked Men, the Testimonium Flavianum, and the description of John the Baptist display a remarkable amount of parallelism. They have a common narrative sequence and within the narrative there are many shared parallel elements, such as vocabulary or subtopics.

The “Wicked Men” narratives in Antiquities of the Jews tend to be longer and more prolix than the narratives in War of the Jews; cells containing text from Antiquities of the Jews often contain more words, than the corresponding cells from Jewish War. The narratives in Josephus’ Vita seem less detailed and have a less complex structure than the narratives in the other two books. This is consistent with H. St. J. Thackeray’s contention that portions of Josephus’ works were actually written by a pair of Greek speaking assistants. A “superb Greek stylist” contributed to Jewish War, while a longwinded “Thucydian Hack” wrote large portions of the last three or four chapters of Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus Vita, according to Thackeray, was written by Josephus himself with minimal outside assistance, and the shorter simpler format of its narratives is consistent with having been written by an Aramaic speaker who learned Greek as a second language[6].

The “Wicked Men” narrative formulation was devised by the “Greek stylist”, Josephus’ first assistant. Presumably he developed and used the formula throughout the second half of Jewish War, in order to simplify his task of having to repeatedly summarize the activities of each of the many Judean troublemakers who arose during the time period leading up to the Jewish revolt. Rather than compose an original and independent passage for each of the troublemakers the “Greek stylist” simply changed a few details of his narrative formula in order to create another seemingly independent “Wicked Man” narrative.

Much of the latter half of Antiquities of the Jews presented material that had already appeared in Jewish War. The “Thucydian Hack” expanded upon the narrative formula devised by his predecessor, but retained its narrative outline when he made his contributions to the final chapters of Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus also attempted to imitate the writing techniques of his Greek assistants when he wrote the passages describing various troublemakers in his Vita.

The structure of the Testimonium Flavianum[4] and the John the Baptist episode[5] bear a superficial resemblance to the structure of the Wicked Man narratives. However, unlike the Wicked Man narratives, neither the Testimonium Flavianum nor the John the Baptist episode displays any hostility toward their subject. The Testimonium Flavianum column contains empty cells, that is, it lacks narrative elements that are contained in most of the other Wicked Men narratives. The phrase “did not cease” (Greek:οὐκ ἐπαύσαντο) in the Testimonium Flavianum is the opposite of the “Wicked Men’s” disciples escaping /fleeing/or scattering when confronted by the authorities[7]. The Testimonium Flavianum also contains a pair of cells whose contents have no match with the other Wicked Men narrations.

The Testimonium Flavianum contains some but not all of the features of the “Wicked Man” narrative format that was employed throughout Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Unlike the other exemplars of this narrative format, the Testimonium Flavianum speaks favorably of its subject. These two findings suggest that the Testimonium Flavianum was not written by the original author(s) of Antiquities of the Jews, but rather by a later interpolator who had not completely mastered the style of Josephus’ literary deputies.

Other commentators have noted that the Testimonium Flavianum interrupts the narrative flow of Book 18, contains non Josephian vocabulary, and that Josephus, having already declared Vespasian the messiah, would not have turned about and jeopardized his position within the Flavian household by stating that Jesus was the Christ [8]. These are additional indicators that the Testimonium Flavianum is an interpolation which was not part of the original document produced by Josephus and his Flavian ghost writers.

The John the Baptist column in the Table has more rows that correlate with other Wicked Man rows than does the Testimonium Flavianum. However, the cells of the John the Baptist column appear to have fewer parallel topic matches (indicated by colored text in each row of the Table) with the other text columns. As mentioned above, Josephus or rather his assistant, the Thucydian Hack, appears to have written favorably about John the Baptist, while the subjects of stylistically similar passages were disparaged. This is consistent with the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews having been edited or censored. The text maintains its narrative structure, but displays fewer correlations at the cellular level with its cognate passages in Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. These anomalies suggest that Josephus’ original text about John the Baptist was altered, its narrative sequence was preserved, but its implication was changed. The passage about John the Baptist was probably transformed from a report about a politically active rabble-rouser to the present story about an irksome but otherwise harmless religious reformer[9].

In conclusion, the attached table shows the extensive parallelism between the passages in the works of Flavius Josephus that describe an assortment of revolutionaries, terrorists, charlatans and other wicked men. The table confirms the multiple authorship of the works attributed to Flavius Josephus. The Testimonium Flavianum is only a partial match to the passages describing wicked men which suggests that it is an interpolation that was not written at the same time as the other passages were. The passage about John the Baptist contains evidence that it underwent later editing or censorship. More information about the composition and transmission of Josephus manuscripts could be obtained using the same tabular comparison technique to study the original Greek texts of Josephus. This table could also be used as the basis for applying advanced analytical methods from cladistics and statistics in order to answer questions about composition and authorship of the works of Flavius Josephus.

David Blocker 2014 07

[1] Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews and Life of Flavius Josephus

[2] Jewish War, Preface 4.11:

“…and that they were the tyrants among the Jews who brought the Roman power upon us, who unwillingly attacked us, and occasioned the burning of our holy temple…”

Antiquities of the Jews 20.8.5:

After an account describing the activities of impious robbers, Josephus wrote:

“And this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of his hatred of these men’s wickedness, rejected our city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it; and brought upon us, our wives, and children, slavery, as desirous to make us wiser by our calamities.”

[3] Josephus’ descriptions of strong troublemakers who had royal pretentions:

From Jewish War:

2 4 1 Judas, the son of that arch-brigand Hezekias

2 4 2 Simon, one of the royal servants

2 4 3 A shepherd called Athrongeus

2 8 1 A Galilean named Judas, (See Judas in Antiquities 18.1.1)

2 13 2 The arch-brigand Eleazar and many of his group

From Antiquities of the Jews:

17 10 4. “for many rose up to go to war”

17 10 5. A fellow called Judas, son of the Ezekias who had been leader of the brigands

17 10 6. A slave of king Herod called Simon

17 10 7 Athrongeus

17 10 8 (285) Judea was full of robberies, and as the various rebel groups chose anyone they found to head them, he immediately became king, to the public ruin. They harmed only a few of the Romans, and in small ways, but committing terrible murders among their own people.

18 1 1 JUDAS, A GAULONITE from a city called Gamala, with the support of the Pharisee Sadduc, … I will explain a little about this, since the infection of the younger impressionable elements by these ideas brought our affairs to ruin.

18 1 6 Judas the Galilean.

Josephus’ description of murderous terrorists:

From Jewish War:

2 13 3 “Another sort of brigands called Sicarii grew up in Jerusalem, who killed people in broad daylight even in the city itself. 255 This was mainly during the festivals, when they mingled among the people with daggers concealed under their clothing to stab their enemies, and when the victim fell, joined in the protest against it, to make them seem trustworthy, so they could not be found out. 256 The first to be killed by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whom many were killed daily, resulting in a terror that was worse than the event itself, and as everyone faced the prospect of death at any moment, the same as in wartime. 257 People had to be on guard and keep their distance, no longer daring to trust even friends who were approaching them, but despite all precautions and security, they were still killed, so quickly and cunningly did the conspirators come at them.”

From Antiquities of the Jews: 17 10 8

[4] Antiquities of the Jews 18 3 3

[5] Antiquities of the Jews 18 5 2 (114 et seq.)

[6] H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus, Man and Historian; Lecture V.

[7] The canonical Gospels state that Jesus’ disciples deserted him and fled at the first sign of trouble (Mark 15:40 and parallels),and that Simon Peter, in particular, repudiated his leader (Matthew 26:33-35, Mark 14:29-31, Luke 22:33-34, John 13:36-38). This is the opposite of Josephus’ statement that Jesus was not abandoned by his followers.

[8]Ken Olson, ”A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum” in Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations, ed. A. Johnson & J. Schott (Harvard University Press, 2013)

Ken A. Olson, ”Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999), pp. 305–322

Louis H. Feldman, “On the Authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum Attributed to Josephus,” in New Perspectives on Jewish Christian Relations, ed. E. Carlebach & J. J. Schechter (Leiden: Brill, 2012

[9] In the Gospel of Mark*, Slavonic Josephus ** and Apocryphal John texts ***, John posed a threat to the legitimacy of Herod Antipas’ rule by implying that Herod’s impious marriage to his sister in law made him unfit to rule over his Jewish subjects.

* Mark 6:14-20

**( (9)John the Forerunner, p. 644 and (11) The Wild Man (John) p. 646, from the Slavonic Additions in Josephus III, the Jewish Was, Books IV-VII, with an English translation by H. St. John Thackeray, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1928, reprinted 1968 )

***The Life of John the Baptist by Serapion from A. Mingana, Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni, vol. 1, Cambridge 1927, pp. 138-287 and The Beheading of John by Euriptus, the disciple of John, translated by Tony Burke from A. Vassiliev, Anecdota graeco-byzantina, I, Moscow, 1893, pp. 1-4, based on Montis Casin. 277 (11th c.) recovered from on July 18, 2014. This page archived at*/