Josephus, Zacchaeus and the Startling Deeds of Jesus

Are the writings of Josephus evidence for the Historical Jesus? Maybe, maybe not. I think so. Here’s a brief breakdown of this issue, along with some thoughts on, in the words of Josephus, the “startling deeds” of Jesus, as illustrated by the story of Jesus’s friend Zacchaeus, that tree-climbing tax collector.

If you’re at all interested in this Historical Jesus business, check out John Meier’s multi-volume series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. These volumes and Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah and Death of the Messiah are the most impressive (and exhaustive) works of scholarship I’ve ever seen or read on Jesus, Meier focusing on the Historical Jesus, Brown on the Theological Jesus of the NT. In A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, Meier considers the two references to Jesus contained in Jewish Antiquities by Josephus.

Let’s look at the less controversial of these passages:

Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, sanhedrin] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned. (Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p. 57; Antiquities 20.9.1)

This passage is really an incidental reference to Jesus, something added to clarify exactly which James Josephus was referring to (he mentions several). To claim this is a Christian interpolation, as some have done, is a mystery to me, as well as to most commentators, including Meier. There’s no praise or confession of faith here concerning Jesus, or, for that matter, no mention of the many virtues of James.

Next is the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (testimony of Flavius Josephus) in Antiquities 18.3.3. Several opinions abound concerning this passage, ranging from (a) this really is Josephus’s testimony, he believed in Jesus (even though he seems indifferent to him in Antiquities 20.9.1) to (z) it’s a complete Christian interpolation. Meier suggests some parts are authentic, some interpolated, the interpolated sections in bold and brackets below:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man[, if indeed one should call him a man]. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p. 61).

I’m not going to breakdown the pros and cons here–it’s my teaser for you to break open Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I’ll leave it at this: I think Josephus in this last statement provides “Historical Jesus-worthy” details.

On a personal note, I especially like the phrase “Jesus was a ‘doer of startling deeds.'” Some translations of Josephus say “marvelous deeds.” Not knowing much Greek, I can’t say which is the better translation. I can say my impression of Jesus is he acted, not so people would stand in awe and marvel at what he had done, but that they would be “startled” into thought, or better yet, action, because of what he had done. These deeds include more than just miracles. And Jesus didn’t startle anyone just for “startling’s” sake. His actions were intended to wake people up, make them see that the kingdom of God is revealed in simple, direct and personal actions, it is already “upon them.” No need to wait for some millennial catastrophe–the kingdom of God is spread out upon the face of the earth but no one sees it, unless they are startled into seeing it.

Here’s my favorite “startling deed” of Jesus contained in the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19, a simple visit to the house of a tax collector:

2: And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich.

3: And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature.

4: So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way.

5: And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

6: So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully.

7: And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Do a startling deed.


  1. Enjoyed this post. Thanks!

  2. I think the prevalence of “startling deeds” is important in establishing continuity in the character of a literal Jesus, though it’s obvious that one can go to far with such–the apochryphal writings having to do with the childhood of Jesus being an example. But whenever we come across something having to do with how the Savior worked against the wicked traditions of His day, then there seems to be an air plausibility in the account–not sure why. It could be that such “brazenness” is too painfully honest and therefore not easily given to fabrication.

    I like your gentle jab at the end–a sort of “go thou and do likewise” to those who would call themselves christians.

  3. Thanks Jack. I’m in need of a jab as much as anyone.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Ed, the Greek for the phrase “for he was a doer of startling deeds” is:

    En gar paradoxOn ergOn poiEtEs

    The adjective paradoxos literally means “contrary to expectation; incredible.”

    So it seems to me that “startline” is a stronger, more vivid rendering than marvelous.

  5. Ed, this is very interesting stuff, but I am missing something: the WHY. If I read through the sources you suggest, how should this knowledge of the historical Jesus inform my worship? Or should it? I just don’t know what to make of these aspects of Christ.

    That said, I love the concept of “startling deeds”. There have been times in my life where I’ve sat up and taken notice at something someone has done for someone else – calling 911 to help an incapacitated homeless person who has fallen down on the sidewalk, and staying with the person until the ambulance arrives, for example. That I’m startled that someone would do such a thing makes me realize how far removed I am from serving others I interact with on a daily basis – and how blind I’ve become to my own obligation to serve them. It’s disappointing.

  6. Great stuff, Ed, as usual. BCC wins!

  7. Elisabeth, I plan on addressing your question in more detail later in another post, but I’ll add that for me, the search for the Historical Jesus is not an end–it’s the search that matters. I’ve discovered so many things on the search (journey) about how I can be a better disciple. Now actually doing them is another matter, as you note. But the search has re-energized me in many ways, helped me to see things I’d ignored before.

    Take the Josephus example above. By itself, it’s not much and it’s already covered in the gospels. For the Historical Jesus it’s significant–but why does it matter to me? The new translation made me think about what Jesus was often about, made me meditate about this. Reading and thinking about Jesus’s “startling” acts … well, startled me.

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