Some sceptics and scholars claim that biblical author Luke had read a book called Antiquities by Jewish historian Josephus, and borrowed his material, in order to invent fake scenes in the book of Acts, only to get the real details wrong. Supposing this was true, then this would undermine Luke as a historian. I don’t find that Luke had read Josephus at all. But what’s the case put forward by some sceptics, and how does it rate?
- Why would the death of Judas’s sons (Josephus) change to being about the death of Judas himself (in Luke)? That’s not what borrowing looks like.
- Why does Luke give the impression that Judas was a failure and his influence ended sharply during the era of Cyrenius? Whereas Josephus spreads Judas’ influence, through his sons, into the much later era of Fadus.
- What is Luke’s source for Judas being killed? Not Josephus, who never even indicates that Judas ever got caught!
- What is Luke’s source for the people being scattered? Not Josephus.
- Why would “caused the people” (in Josephus) become merely “led a band“ (in Luke)?
- That’s a big shift down, from “the people” to just “a band”. We know that Josephus had an agenda to exaggerate this, which has apparently had no influence on Luke’s more modest report.
- Why would “account of the estates of the Jews” (Josephus) become vaguely “the registration” (Luke)?
- A ‘registration’ could be any of a number of things, a census, a tax, an oath to Caesar, whatever. Luke leaves it a loose end.
- Luke still has the above unique details about the outcome of the story, which are again proven not to be not from Josephus.
- Luke seems oblivious to key information that Josephus reveals: that Judas the G had a Pharisee ally.
- Josephus positions Judas the G as a violent extremist and radically distances himself from Judas as a matter of absolute necessity. Whereas Luke innocently allows comparison between Jesus’ Galilean apostles and Judas the Galilean. and lets it go without comment. It is inconceivable that Luke would hook the church up to such a dangerous comparison if he knew it was so reputation-harming, as Luke would know if he had actually read Josephus’ highly polarised and toxic account of Judas. It indicates that Luke had a different relatively harmless source about Judas.
- I will also explain in a footnote why scholars recognise Josephus’ account to be untrustworthy, an issue that undermines any case for giving too much weight to Josephus’ reliability in this whole passage, affecting our confidence in his coverage of Judas and Theudas.
- Why would “the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree” (in Josephus) become merely “led a band“ (in Luke)? This is a radically different version of events.
- How can Luke produce merely ‘revolt’ from “One violent war came upon us after another… very great robberies, and murders of our principal men… the very temple of God was burnt down... Judas and Sadducus, who excited a fourth philosophick sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present…” It’s nonsense to suppose that so much toxicity could be so glossed over as to produce Luke’s tame text: “led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
- Why would the argument that Judas the G was a precursor to the war with Rome, indirectly the cause that ‘the very temple of God was burnt down’ (in Josephus) become an ephemeral event that was a ‘fail’ (in Luke)?
- Luke does not have Sadduc in his story of Judas the G. But if Luke had read Antiquities Book 18, then there is no obvious reason why he wouldn’t have written something like “Judas the Galilean and Sadduc appeared”. Book 18 is therefore even less likely to be Luke’s source.
- Although you would never know it from Luke, Josephus mentions that Judas the G and Sadduc spread a new ‘philosophy’, and that the dispute was to a degree about paying a tax. It all reads like they had different sources.
- the fact that both writers mention the same two rebel names, Judas and Theudas – coincidence?
- that both writers mention the names in the same order, first Theudas, then Judas – coincidence?
- given that Claudius’ name appears in Josephus’ Book 20 much more frequently, both before and after the two mentions of Theudas’ name.
- given that Luke more than once names Claudius in Acts without getting the chronology wrong there, so we know he could be sensitive to this sort of detail.
- Why would “slew many of them, and took many of them alive” become “all his followers were dispersed”? Slew/captured is the opposite of ‘all were dispersed’.
- Why would a story that Theudas was beheaded and the head taken to Jerusalem become merely that he was killed?
- And look at the two halves of the above. Slew/captured cannot reasonably become ‘all were dispersed’ and therefore we have to doubt that Josephus was the source for the first half either, Luke’s mere ‘killed’.
- Why would Josephus specifying that it was the Romans who killed his Theudas become the anonymous killers found in Luke?
- Why would the attention-grabbing “magician… prophet” merely become a vague “something”?
- According to Luke, Theudas was “saying he was something” (λέγων εἶναί τινα ἑαυτόν). Luke seems indifferent or unsure what that was, and this is not a problem if he was writing about events before 6AD, probably before he was born.
- Why would people carrying their effects (in Josephus) become ‘men rallied’ (in Luke)?
- Why would “a great part of the people” be reduced to the more specific “about four hundred men”?
- The Christian Thinktank website helpfully points out that ‘The following paragraph in Josephus recounts a massacre of over 20,000 people, so a band of only 400 would probably not be 'newsworthy' enough for Josephus to even mention.’ It makes sense that Josephus was juxtaposing two major episodes. Luke was speaking from a different source, and it seems about a more minor story.
Josephus mentions an insurrection of a Judas, son of Hezekiah, and another one by Judas the Galilean.
A control: what does Luke do where we can trace his use of source material?
It would be amiss not to mention that an important control is available to this study. We can actually test Luke's behaviour where the relationship between Luke and prior written sources is irrefutably present. We can then compare this with evidence of how Luke handles material that he has in common with Josephus. And the difference could not be more stark: Luke is almost slavish in relying on Q material and Mark's Gospel by comparison; whereas when Luke and Josephus have common interest in an episode, there is barely more than the odd word occurring in both, and hardly the sort of words showing evidence of copying one from the other. This is demonstrated adequately elsewhere (link),and I may add more later. No claim that Luke copied from Josephus is robust unless it can overcome this hurdle.
As a final note, I’d like to quote Emil Schurer (from back in 1876!): “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83).
Footnote: Why Josephus is untrustworthy on Judas the Galilean
Josephus was an accomplished spin doctor. He sneakily shifts the blame for the War (66-70AD) away from Jerusalem aristocrats such as himself (the likely suspects) to convenient scapegoats from the past (6AD). Of course, it’s far-fetched for Josephus to shift the blame back 60 years, but he had to keep the noose away from his own neck somehow. The Romans would have suspected his potential role in the outbreak of the war.