Pilate’s Silver: Josephus’ Account of the Passion
By: Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski
This is the account, given by the 1st century A.D. Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus in his book The Jewish War, according to the Old Slavonic rendition of the Greek original, of the Life, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, known here as “the Wonderworker”:
First, the statements about the ministry of Jesus and His miracles:
“At that time there appeared a man, if it is permissible to call him a man. His nature and form were human, but his appearance was something more that that of a man; notwithstanding his works were divine. He worked miracles wonderful and mighty. Therefore it is impossible for me to call him a man; but again, if I look at the nature, which he shared with all, I will not call him an angel. And everything whatsoever he wrought through an invisible power, he wrought by word and command. Some said of him, ‘Our first lawgiver [Christ] is risen from the dead and hath performed many healings and arts, while others thought that he was sent from God. Howbeit in many things he disobeyed the Law and kept not the Sabbath according to our fathers’ customs. Yet, on the other hand, he did nothing shameful; nor did he do anything with the aid of hands, but by word alone did he provide everything.”1
Second, the statements concerning His Trial Before Pilate and His Passion:
“And there assembled unto him of ministers one hundred and fifty, and a multitude of the people. Now when they saw his power, that he accomplished whatsoever he would by a word, and when they had made known to him their will, that he should enter into the city and cut down the Roman troops and Pilate and rule over us, [but he took no notice]. And when therefore knowledge of it came to the Jewish leaders, they assembled together with the high priest and spake: ‘We are powerless and too weak to withstand the Romans. Seeming moreover that the bow is bent, we will go and communicate to Pilate what we have heard, and we shall be clear of trouble. . . . ‘ And he [Pilate] had that Wonderworker brought up, and after instituting an inquiry concerning him, he pronounced judgement: ‘He is a benefactor, not a malefactor, nor a rebel, nor covetous of kingship’. And he let him go; for he had healed his dying wife. And he went to his wonted place and did his wonted works. And when more people again assembled round him, he glorified himself through his actions more than all. The teachers of the Law were overcome with envy, and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he took it and gave them liberty to execute their will themselves. And they laid hands on him and crucified him contrary to the law of their fathers.”2
Third, the statements concerning the aftermath of the Passion of Jesus Christ:
“This curtain [of the Temple] was before this generation entire, because the people were pious; but now it was grievous to see, for it was suddenly rent from the top to the bottom, when they through bribery delivered to death the benefactor of men and him who from his actions was no man. And many other fearful signs might one tell, which happened then. And it is said that he, after being killed and after being laid in the grave, was not found. Some indeed profess that he had risen, others that he was stolen away by his friends. But for my part I know not which speak more correctly. For one that is dead cannot rise of himself, though he may do so with the help of the prayer of another righteous man, unless he be an angel or another of the heavenly powers, or unless God himself appears as a man and accomplishes what he will, and walks with men and falls and lies down and rises again, as pleases his will. But others said that it was not possible to steal him away, because they set watchmen around his tomb, 30 Romans and 1,000 Jews.”3
A) Independent Verification: Why Josephus Matters
If we were to attempt to find an extra-biblical historical source to confirm the happenings described in the Gospels, there is certainly none better than that of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD). There are two reasons why Josephus (who later, due to the patronage of Vespasian, took the family name of the emperor as his own) is such an outstanding historical source. First, he has no “interest” in testifying to and confirming the events as described in the Gospels – as far as we know, he never was a Christian. Second, his contacts with the Jews of the Mediterranean world, including the Jews of Jerusalem, were extensive. He himself was from Palestine and returned there, after a stay in Rome, prior to the Fall of the City in 70 AD. His contacts were far-reaching and of the highest quality, being a commander of the Jewish forces fighting the Romans prior to 70 AD, a friend and interpreter for Titus the Roman besieger of the City, and, later, a confidant and client of the Roman emperors. To this extensive practical experience, we can add his high social status as the son of a priest and a man who, at the age of nineteen, decided to join the Pharisees.4 What we cannot help but recognize here is the fact that Josephus would have access to a wealth of personal accounts and high-level information, which would not even be available to most Christians of the period. What we find in the Old Slavonic (Old Russian) manuscript is, precisely, language which indicates that Josephus was an unbiased historian of events in the Life of Jesus Christ, who had access to accounts coming, ultimately, from well-placed first-hand observers of those events.
Although it is clear that Josephus was a patriotic Jew, he quickly became impressed with the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire. This deep impression, which the Empire made on him, was the reason for his efforts to prevent violent conflict between his nation and Rome. In 66, being unable to prevent the outbreak of hostility between the two sides in Palestine, Josephus reluctantly joined the rebellion and, even, assumed a command in Galilee where he fortified a number of cities. His eventual surrender to overwhelming Roman power led to his imprisonment in 67. It was during this imprisonment that he was to form a lasting friendship with the Roman general Vespasian. When Vespasian became emperor in 69, Josephus was officially freed. 5
Josephus shows himself to be a man caught in the very nexus of the most important events of the time-period, when we find him returning to Jerusalem with the son of Vespasian, the general and future emperor, Titus. Knowing of Roman power and Jewish weakness, Josephus tried to convince the Jews holding the city to surrender and thus save it. He was unsuccessful. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus returned to Rome and accepted an imperial pension – even gaining Roman citizenship and adopting the name of the imperial family.6
It was upon his return to Rome, after the destruction of the Temple, that Josephus began his literary endeavors. His first work, the one that attracts our interest, was The Jewish War. It was written as a general history of the wars from the time of the Maccabees to the Great War with Rome, which resulted in the demise of the nation of Israel. Josephus’ eyewitness account of the last years of resistance and the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, are invaluable contributions to our understanding of the social, political, and religious milieu of the New Testament period.7 Basically, if Josephus did not know what was going on amidst the Romans and the Jews of the period, who would? It is, of course, within these two groups that we must search for a more perfect understanding of the events surrounding the Passion of Jesus Christ.
B) The Passion: A Conspiracy Unreported?
The implications of the passage cited above are clear. In what appears to be a text coming from the hand of a skeptical, puzzled, unbeliever, we find confirmation of the Gospel’s explicit statements concerning the ministry and the miracles of Jesus Christ. In passages resembling those found in his later work, The Antiquities of the Jews XVIII, 63f, Josephus testifies to the unique nature of the mission of Christ and the marvelous phenomenon, which even impressed this Jewish priest and Roman collaborator. His simple statement that, “he did nothing shameful; nor did he do anything with the aid of his hands, but by word alone did he provide everything,” is evocative of many of the incidents reported in the Gospels (e.g., the healing of the servant of the Centurion) in which a simple word from Christ worked miraculous cures at a distance. This same point, that “he accomplished whatsoever he would by a word,” is mentioned again in the section of text which discusses the desire, on the part of the “multitude of the people,” that he should enter into the city (Jerusalem) and “cut down the Roman troops and Pilate and rule over us.”
The “Wonderworker,” “angel,” and man whose “appearance was something more than that of a man,” is identified as a man who both violated certain “customs” concerning the Sabbath and “did nothing shameful.” He, apparently, from the account given by Josephus, became a grave “problem” for the leaders of the Jewish people, when His miracles incited the people to believe that He had the divinely given power necessary to overthrow the oppressors of Israel and restore the Davidic kingdom. Here we find a slight variation of the account given in the Gospels, which would indicate that its author either did not know the content of the Gospel accounts (which appears likely) or had access to information about the political intrigue between Jewish and Roman leaders that was not available to, or did not concern, the Evangelists. According to Josephus, the Jewish leaders, worried about their own situation, reported the events surrounding Christ to Pilate. Pilate, after engaging in what appears to be a very violent form of crowd control, brought Christ before him and judged him to be innocent of all charges of insurrection. After Jesus’ dismissal, the marvels increased, again causing the Jewish leaders to come to Pilate.
It is in this second attempt to implicate Jesus that the Jewish leaders revealed their true motivation and intention. With regard to this section of the text, either it is a complete “interpolation” (a word very popular with the scholars who wish to dismiss the statements made in the Old Slavonic text) or it provides us with “inside” information that shed an entirely new light upon the Trial and Passion of Jesus Christ. There are no other possibilities. If we look at two different translations of the same text, we find that there is still no ambiguity as to the meaning of the passage. Thackeray renders the passage, “the teachers of the Law were overcome with envy, and gave 30 talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he took it and gave them liberty to execute their will themselves. And they laid hands on him and crucified him contrary to the law of their fathers.”8 In a translation of the same passage by the scholar, G.A. Williamson who upholds the authenticity of the Old Slavonic “additions,” we find the following: “The exponents of the Law were mad with jealousy, and gave Pilate 30 talents to have him executed. Accepting the bribe, he gave them permission to carry out their wishes themselves. So they seized him and crucified him in defiance of all Jewish tradition.”9 With regard to the meaning of the text, the differences present in the translations are insignificant. Pilate has gone from an active role, one in which he judges according to his own understanding that Jesus is not a malefactor, to a passive role on account of a bribe. “And he took it and gave them liberty to execute their will themselves.” The final sentence of this section indicates that they (“they” here clearly refers to the “teachers of the Law” – if not, the whole passage would make no sense) executed their desires when “they laid hands on him and crucified him contrary to the law of their father.”
If we truly think about these passages, rather than just dismissing them arbitrarily as “interpolations,” we find that this identification of the “teachers of the Law” and native Jews in general as the proximate (i.e., immediate or “closest”) cause of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, many aspects of the whole situation, along with numerous Scriptural references and a tradition within Christianity, become more intelligible. That Josephus should mention this singularly unique event should not at all surprise us; it would surprise us if he did not mention it in his first work on the Jews. References to Christ, as worker of wonders and as a man who purportedly rose from the dead, appear in his later book entitled, The Antiquities of the Jews. Such renowned twentieth century scholars as Thackeray, von Harnack, and Burkitt have affirmed the references to Christ there as authentic.10
All the points mentioned here, the bribery of Pilate, the fact that the Jewish leaders “laid hands” on Christ and “crucified him contrary to the law of their father,” along with the judicious and balanced historian’s horror at the injustice of the actions taken by his fellow Jews, clearly make this an historical event which could not be passed over in silence. I would challenge any scholar to cite a case in which the leaders of the Jewish people are known to have turned over one of their own countrymen to the Romans and demanded from the Romans that the man be executed by way of crucifixion. I know of no other historical example of such an event. Moreover, something has to explain Gospel passages such as the one in the Gospel of St. John. First, St. John, the only known apostolic witness to the actual events themselves, gives an account of the profoundly shocking statement of the leaders of the Sanhedrin who denied their Messiah (“whomever” he might be) and their very norm of governmental legitimacy by responding to Pilate’s acknowledgement of the kingship of Christ (“Behold your king”) with the statement, “We have no king but Caesar.” After this verbal coup d’etat, on the part of the chief priests, the Gospel of St. John states exactly what we find in Josephus, “Then therefore he delivered him to them to be crucified. And they took Jesus and led him forth.”11 In this regard, something like the political situation portrayed by Josephus must have taken place or else the attribution of guilt to the leaders of the Jewish people by St. Peter, St. Paul, and, even, in such early Christian writers as St. Justin would lack force for the people of the time.12 I have never read anything in Scripture, coming from the Evangelists or from the other Apostles, in which the Romans as a group were condemned for bringing about the death of Jesus Christ.
C) The Torn Curtain and the Temple Inscription
Included in the Slavonic “Additions” (i.e., material included in the Old Slavonic translation of The Jewish War which is not included in the extant Greek text) are passages concerning the aftermath of the Crucifixion, which confirm the “bribery” statement, contained in the earlier citation, along with providing additional information that is extremely intriguing. Although classified by the Jewish scholar Robert Eisler as “clearly a Christian interpolation,” the text reads like one written by a habitual skeptic and not as one written by a devote believer. Either there is much fakery going on or this is a text by a Jew of pagan Greco-Roman culture who has definite and exact information concerning the events surrounding the one, which he calls the “wonderworker.” He either saw the sight himself or has second or third hand accounts of the sight. Confirming the Gospels here in every detail, Josephus writes that, “This curtain [of the Temple] was before this generation entire, because the people were pious; but now it was grievous to see, for it was suddenly rent from the top to the bottom, when they through bribery delivered to death the benefactor of men and him who from his actions was no man [emphasis mine].” How consonant with the passage in The Antiquities of the Jews that speaks of Christ as “a wise man, if indeed he should be called a man. For he was a doer of marvelous deeds.”13 Why would the first part be an “interpolation” and the second part of the same sentence perfectly in accord with what Josephus said in other works?
This text clearly identifies the Death of Christ as being the point in time when the curtain of the Temple was rent “from the top to the bottom.” We, also, have the singular fact presented that the curtain of the Temple, after being rent at the time of the Passion, was left hanging for a considerable period of time. Such would be quite an odd fact to make up if one were looking to skew the text in any way.
Josephus goes on to speak about the reports of the Resurrection. He treats them here not as facts, but simply as reports. “But for my part I know not which speak more correctly” (i.e., those who say the body of Christ was stolen away or those who say that He rose from the dead). At this point, he presents another singular fact that appears to be too particular to be an “interpolation.” Josephus, in regards to those arguing that the Resurrection had indeed taken place, says, “But others said that it was not possible to steal him away, because they set watchmen around his tomb, 30 Romans and 1,000 Jews.” This purported fact, unreported in the Gospels, would be a perfectly understandable consequence of the intense concern, on the part of the leaders of the people, that Jesus’ prophecy that he would raise His body up after 3 days, would not be fulfilled. The enormous Jewish presence at the tomb and the miniscule Roman one would reflect their respective “interest” in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish leaders were so adamant that they were willing to renounce their loyalty to the House of David, while Pilate was so, seemingly, indifferent that he was even willing to put forward as a king one that did not have the sanction of Caesar. Moreover, if this information about the strength of the guard at the tomb is true, then there is no possible way that the body could have been “stolen away.” That there is no mention of these kinds of numbers in any other source but that of Josephus indicates that the “silver” must have flowed quite freely in the aftermath of this incident.
Finally, in a part of the text for which I have no explanation, but which is included immediately before the section which discusses the renting of the curtain, we read of the “equal pillars” present in the post-Resurrection Temple, “and upon them titles in Greek and Latin and Jewish characters,” giving warning that no foreigner should enter within; the text goes on to say, “And above these titles was hung a fourth title in the same characters, announcing that Jesus the king did not reign, but was crucified by the Jews, because he prophesied the destruction of the city and the devastation of the temple” [emphasis mine].14 The point of interest here is that Eisler does not speak of this section as a “Christian interpolation.”
D) The Scholarship
The question of the status of the Old Slavonic text of The Jewish War has been a contention amongst scholars since knowledge of the text arose in the Western world due to the translation of the Old Slavonic texts relating to St. John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the early Church into German by Alexander Berendts. Berendts tried to translate the entire text of The Jewish War but his efforts were cut short by his death. The text that was translated was not, apparently, a mere translation of the extant Greek text since it contains both material not present in the existing Greek text and omits material present in the Greek. The Jewish scholar, Robert Eisler’s work on the question of the authenticity of the text, and G.A. Williamson’s Penguin translation of it, which included the key passages as part of the appendix, popularized the idea that the Old Slavonic text was a translation of an early addition of the Greek text. That there were two editions is mentioned in the preface to the extant Greek text itself.
The German scholar who was at the forefront of the research in this area of the Old Slavonic “additions,” was Johannes Frey of the University of Dorpat. After producing a thoroughgoing study of the history of the Passion, in 1908 he published a substantial volume in which he treated the subject of Josephus’ “Christian” passages in much minute detail. In this regard, Frey called attention to the fact that the general characteristics of these passages was very different from those of all other ancient Christian “forgeries” known to the scholarly world. Frey’s main contention, after all of his extensive research and explication of the text, was that the author must be held to be a Jew and not a Christian. To substantiate his claim, he pointed out that there is no evidence of direct dependence on early canonical Christian literature, nor any sign of an acquaintance with the precision of the written tradition or of the inner oral traditions of the Christians themselves. In so far as there is an agreement with the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles, it is only in the form of generalities; it is as if someone is speaking from the “outside.”
The question then arises, where did the author of the text get his information. As Frey asserts, he did not get it from merely fabricating it in his imagination. He has traditional material of some sort to go on. He is clearly setting forth what he has heard people say. The testimony appears to, often, trouble him exceedingly. And, yet, he does not come off as a hostile critic. In fact, he generally appears to be sympathetic. He clearly believes that Jesus was an outstanding figure who was unjustly done to death. Frey’s main contention is that the writer of the text worked on Jewish general popular oral sources; he had at his disposal oral traditions proximate to the occurrences. He therefore is the greatest external source, from the first century, to confirm the accounts of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1 Josephus, Vol. III, The Jewish War (Books IV—VII) in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (London: William Heinemann LTD, n.d.), pp. 648-649.
2 Ibid., p. 650.
3 Ibid., p. 658.
4 The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), p. ix.
8 Ibid., p. 650.
9 Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson (London, 1970), pp. 398-400.
10 Cf. H. St. John Thackeray, Josephus, The Man and the Historian (New York, 1929), pp. 136-137.
11 Taken from the Douay-Rheims Bible, St. John 19:14-16.
12 For example, we read in The First Apology of St. Justin, the Martyr, “But Jesus Christ stretched out his hands when he was crucified by the Jews, who contradicted him and denied that he was Christ.” Also, in the same work, St. Justin writes, “Not withstanding this, the Jews who are in possession of the books of the prophets did not recognize Christ even when he had come, and they hate us who declare that he has come and show that he was crucified by them as had been predicted” [emphasis mine]. Cf. Early Christian Fathers, translator and editor Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 264-265.
13 Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 63.
14 Josephus, War, p. 657.