Josephus on the Jewish Theologies of Hell

Sometimes (although thankfully, not often), you might hear an argument that goes a bit like this: We should assume that Christians agreed with Jews about most things. And we know the Pharisees, an important group of Jews, believed in eternal torment. We know this because that’s how Josephus described them. So without any good evidence to the contrary, we should assume that Jesus and the early Jewish Christians held that view, too.

What should Evangelicals make of this argument?

A toothless challenge

The appeal to Josephus is, of course, fairly impotent as a refutation of the case that Scripture teaches that the lost will one day finally perish. Even if Josephus was a first rate source for Jewish theology whose description of Pharisaical theology was an accurate description of the whole group and he reported that they taught eternal torment, we could still (and would still) observe that it is a theology directly in conflict with biblical theology. Since we are Christians and not Pharisees, our attitude to Christ and hence to Apostolic teaching and to the New Testament is completely different from that of the Pharisees. There were times when Jesus taught contrary to Pharisaical theology as described by Josephus, affirming that God will destroy both body and life (or “soul,” ψυχή / psuche) in the place of final punishment (Matthew 10:28), that the alternatives are a road to life or a road to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14); that at the judgement the lost will be burned up like weeds (Matthew 13:36-43), that only those who eat the bread of life (something Jesus equated with believing in him) will live forever (John 6:47-51), and so on. If Josephus said that the Pharisees believed in eternal torment, Christians could just thank him for his observation about the beliefs of the Pharisees and get on with being Christians.

All the same, somebody might want to press the point and argue that since Josephus is such a trustworthy source and he describes Judaism as affirming eternal torment, that should somehow skew our reading of the New Testament to make eternal torment a possible interpretation, since the first Christians who wrote it were Jewish, and they didn’t go out of their way to specifically complain that Judaism got this wrong. There are two responses to this. One is that there are reasonable limits on “interpretation.” We cannot just interpret anything in such a way as to allow for eternal torment, and the New Testament decisively rules the doctrine out. The second response is to, if out of nothing more than curiosity, say: Very well, let’s see what Josephus had to say.

A misattributed work

One piece of evidence that might be offered from Josephus is in the Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades. In it, Josephus allegedly says that the souls of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained in Hades, a place literally under the ground. There, the lost are punished with temporary punishments, while the righteous are said to rest in a place called “the Bosom of Abraham” while they await heaven. In Hades there is a “lake of unquenchable fire,” which awaits the day of judgement, when the lost will be cast into it as an eternal punishment.

This short treatise is a goldmine for some proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment. It presents Jewish theology as containing precisely what these Christians believe about the proper interpretation of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the latter of whom relaxes in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, in Hades, suffers punishment (Luke 16:19-31). This work also affirms their views on human nature and the doctrine of hell. But there is a good reason this piece of writing resembles the views of some Christians. It wasn’t written by Josephus at all. Instead, the Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades was written by Hippolytus of Rome, a somewhat elusive Christian theologian born in the late Second Century. The work has been incorrectly attributed to Josephus since at least the Ninth Century, and it was, unfortunately, included in the popular edition of Josephus’ works translated by William Whiston, which is why so many Christian laypeople treat it as a work of Josephus. There simply was no Jewish theology of a place in the underworld called the Bosom of Abraham in the first century. This was Hippolytus’ concoction based on his interpretation of Jesus’ story in Luke 16:19-31, just as the existence of an actual lake of fire in Hades is his interpretation of the symbolic imagery in the book of Revelation. This work, therefore, has no value in describing first century Jewish theology.

Josephus on the Pharisees and Essenes

In book 2 of Josephus’ War of the Jews, he describes three philosophical sects among the Jews: The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes (spelled “Essens” in translations of Josephus). He does so as though each group were fairly uniform in thought and practice First, he describes the Essenes as a morally strict separated community, before discussing their view of the afterlife:

For their doctrine is this. That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever, and that they come out of the most subtil air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural inticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is such as is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, that is perpetually blowing from the ocean; while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments. And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion, when they allot the islands of the blessed to their brave men, whom they call heroes, and demi-gods; and to the souls of the wicked, the region of the ungodly in Hades, where their fables relate that certain persons, such as Sisyphus, and Tantalus, and Ixion, and Tityus, are punished; which is built on this first supposition, that souls are immortal; and thence are those exhortations to virtue, and dehortations from wickedness collected; whereby good men are bettered in the conduct of their life by the hope they have of reward after their death, and whereby the vehement inclinations of bad men to vice are restrained, by the fear and expectation they are in, that although they should lie concealed in this life, they should suffer immortal punishment after their death. These are the divine doctrines of the Essens about the soul, which lay an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste of their philosophy.

Notice how he urges his Greek and Roman readers to view Essenes as holding a view very similar to their own: Not mentioning the resurrection of the dead (something Greeks rejected) and emphasising the immortality of the soul. He draws parallels between the views of the Essenes and views expressed in Greek myths. The souls of the lost, rather than being tormented in fire, receive an “immortal punishment” in a cold place, a tempestuous den.

Next, Josephus describes the Pharisees, again, as a monolith.

These ascribe all to fate, and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men; although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.

Although not crystal clear, the first part of this description may indicate that Josephus thought the Pharisees held to a compatibilist view of free will, maintaining that God’s predetermining and human free will and responsibility can coexist.

It again appears that Josephus is trying to make the Judaism he describes sound appealing to a pagan Greek audience, skipping over the resurrection of the lost altogether, and re-describing the resurrection of the just in such a way as to make it sound suspiciously like the transmigration of the soul…

Notice the strange way Josephus describes the doctrine of resurrection here. The New Testament indicates that Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), but Josephus describes this as the soul’s being removed into another body. Although strictly true, given the dualistic view of the soul Josephus is supposing, this is a very strange way for a Jew to describe resurrection, since Jews who believed in the resurrection held that those same bodies that sleep in the dust will rise (Daniel 12:2). What is more, Josephus here says that Pharisees thought only the souls of the righteous would enter a body again. When he presented the views of the Pharisees again in his work Antiquities, he said the same thing:

They also believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them: and that under the earth there will be rewards, or punishments; according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life: and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison; but that the former shall have power to revive and live again.

Again, only the righteous will live again, while the souls of the wicked remain detained in an everlasting prison. But the Jews who believed in the resurrection held that the righteous and the wicked would be raised for judgement. Indeed, when St Paul was brought before Felix, he appealed to the fact that his conviction that “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” was one that he held in common with his Jewish accusers (Acts 24:15). On the face of it, then, this very short description of what the Pharisees believed looks a bit strange. It again appears that Josephus is trying to make the Judaism he describes sound less like the version found in the New Testament, and more like something appealing to a pagan Greek audience, skipping over the resurrection of the lost altogether, and re-describing the resurrection of the just in such a way as to make it sound suspiciously like the transmigration of the soul, the view that souls transfer between bodies – a view that was held by a number of Greeks. But let’s set that aside for now.

Lastly, Josephus describes the views of the Sadducees, who are noted in the New Testament as those who deny the resurrection. But Josephus’ description is extraordinary:

But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behaviour of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.

I will comment on this description below, but let’s just say for now that something doesn’t seem right here.

So there is Josephus’ description of Jewish beliefs. The Essenes are described as strongly resembling pagan Greeks in their view of the world to come. The Pharisees are described as believing in incorruptible souls that are “removed into other bodies” if one is righteous, or else subject to eternal punishment. And the Sadducees are described as antinomian in their approach to ethics, denying a future life, and generally hostile and mean people.

Suppose for now that Josephus’ description of the Pharisees’s view of the fate of the unjust amounts to eternal torment in hell. This naturally leads to the question of how much faith we should place in Josephus.

How accurate was Josephus?

Obviously the challenge (weak as it may be, as discussed under “a toothless challenge”) stands or falls on the credibility of Josephus as a witness to first-century Jewish theology. Is there any way to assess this? In fact there are several ways. We can compare what Josephus says with what we know from other ancient sources, we can compare it with the writings of the very people he is describing, where possible, and we can consult the scholarly opinion of experts in Judaism.

The first issue I want to raise regards the Sadducees. Recall that Josephus described the Sadducees as believing that God doesn’t care if we are good or evil, so people can decide for themselves what to do. This seems incredible. One of the key differences between Sadducees and Pharisees is that while Pharisees accepted the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, the Sadducees accepted only the Law / Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Since the afterlife is not mentioned there, they did not believe in it (which is why, when arguing with the Sadducees for the resurrection in Mark 12, Jesus used the book of Exodus). We do not have any of the writings of the Sadducees, so we know what we do about them because of the New Testament, Josephus (maybe!), and Rabbinical writings from the second century. What we know from this last source indicates that they held to a literal interpretation of the Torah. How could they also believe in doing what they please, thinking that God isn’t concerned one way or the other? The Sadducees, along with Pharisees, made up the Great Sanhedrin, a kind of supreme court on legal and religious matters. The Sadducees were religious heavyweights with a particular interest in God’s law and its application in their society. Josephus’ quick and somewhat shocking characterisation of them as lawless and “barbarous” is surprising at the very least.

Secondly, consider Josephus’ description of the theology of the Essenes. It seems like Josephus is describing the group as a whole (or at least, intending to). For centuries we had no writings of the Essenes, so Josephus’ colourful account is what we had to go on. His description of the soul being bound inside a body like a prison sounds like a statement directly from Plato’s Phaedo, and the rest of his description floats freely between implications about Essene thought and descriptions of Greek myths. It seems clear, though, that he is saying the Essenes held to some type of eternal torment of the souls of the lost. This is what the world relied on to understand Essene belief, until the twentieth century. In 1947, a major discovery was made, namely the scrolls that are now called the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. It is widely believed that the Essenes either wrote or collected these scrolls, although there is no consensus. Some maintain the Essenes had nothing to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It would be unwise, therefore, to dogmatise.

These primary sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls, do not teach eternal torment. Instead they teach the doctrine of annihilationism – that all evildoers will finally be destroyed and be no more, leaving only the righteous to live forever. The fate of the wicked figure Belial is said to be annihilation in 4Q286.

Afterwards [they] shall damn Belial and all his guilty lot. They shall answer and say, Cursed be [B]elial in his hostile design, and damned in his guilty dominion. Cursed be all the spirits of his [lo]t in their wicked design, and damned in their thoughts of unclean impurity. For they are the lot of darkness and their visitation is for eternal destruction. Amen, amen.

Cursed be the Wicked One in all the ages of his dominions, and may all the sons of Belial be damned in all the works of their service until their annihilation [for ever, Amen, amen.] 1Geza Vermes (trans.) The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin, 2004, Rev. Ed.), 394

Similarly, in the hymns and poems in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fate of all the lost is total destruction.

For Thou wilt bring Thy glorious [salvation] to all the men of Thy Council, to those who share a common lot with the Angels of the Face.
And among them shall be no mediator to [invoke Thee], and no messenger [to make] reply;
for …
They shall reply according to Thy glorious word and shall be Thy princes in the company [of the Angels].
They shall send out a bud [for ever] like a flower [of the fields], and shall cause a shoot to grow into the boughs of an everlasting Plant.
It shall cover the whole [earth] with its shadow [and its crown] (shall reach) to the [clouds];
its roots (shall go down) to the Abyss [and all the rivers of Eden shall water its branches].
A source of light shall become an eternal ever-flowing fountain, and in its bright flames all the [sons of iniquity] shall be consumed;
[it shall be] a fire to devour all sinful men in utter destruction. 2Hymn 14, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 277-278.

And similarly:

Thou wilt destroy in Judgement all men of lies, and there shall be no more seers of error;
for in Thy works is no folly, no guile in the design of Thy heart.
But those who please Thee shall stand before Thee for ever;
those who walk in the way of Thy heart shall be established for evermore. 3Hymn 12, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 270.

One final example for now, on the last judgement:

… you have been shaped and your return is to eternal destruction. For it shall wake up … your sin
Darkness will roar against your dispute. And all those who will exist for ever, those who search truth will be aroused for your judgement [and then] all the foolish hearts will be destroyed, and the sons of injustice will be found no more. 4The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 434.

That is, of course, a very short survey (just as this is a relatively short article). But you get the idea. These passages teach the doctrine of annihilationism, not eternal torment.

It seems clear that in his description of the Pharisees’ doctrine of resurrection as well his description of Essene thought, [Josephus] is trying to endear the Jews to Roman readers.

What, then, should we make of Josephus’ comments about the Essenes? Remember that his description of the Pharisees and the Essenes reads as though he intends to describe the group, rather than just a few here and there within the group. There is disagreement about who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and delving into that issue is not germane to my purpose here, but if they were written by Essenes and are our exposure to an Essene point of view (for we have no other writings by them), then Josephus was mistaken about what he group thought about hell. For him to have made such a sweeping error in his detailed description of Essene theology surely calls into question his reliability as a witness to Jewish schools of thought. If he cannot be trusted to represent the Essenes, why trust his scant comments about what Pharisees believed? This is all the more so given that he represents them as not believing in a resurrection of the lost, when the New Testament indicates they did believe this. Should we treat Josephus as right and the New Testament as wrong?

However, if the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written by the Essenes, who were they written by? Josephus lists three schools of Jewish philosophical thought, as though they cover the spectrum of Jewish philosophy: The Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. There is clearly a doctrine of the eternal life of the righteous in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it was not written by the Sadducees. But if it was written by Pharisees, then we must again view Josephus as a highly dubious source on their theology, if he is to be understood to mean that the Pharisees believed in eternal torment. Don’t misunderstand – I am well aware that there were Jews who believed in eternal torment. The focus just now is on the trustworthiness and objectivity of Josephus. It seems clear that in his description of the Pharisees’ doctrine of resurrection as well his description of Essene thought, he is trying to endear the Jews to Roman readers. That is his agenda, and the Dead Sea Scrolls cast doubt on his accuracy when it comes to the theology of these groups.

Even in the 1800s there was ample evidence that Josephus should not be granted much weight on the subject of eternal punishment.

Finally, Jewish historians do not see Josephus as a reliable expounder of Jewish belief – or even Jewish history! This has been pointed out previously in Christian conversations about final punishment. Nineteenth-Century theologian E. B. Pusey wrote a well-known book defending the doctrine of eternal torment, What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? The book was a response to F. W. Farrar, accused of teaching Universalism. Farrar denied being a universalist (holding to a hope that all will be saved, rather than to the dogma that all will be saved), but I am not defending his view on hell here. Farrar penned a response to Pusey called Mercy and Judgement: A Few Last Words On Christian Eschatology With Reference to Dr. Pusey’s “What Is of Faith?” One of Pusey’s arguments was based on the claim that the Jews believed in eternal torment. Part of this argument was grounded in ignorance of Jewish literature, because we simply know more about what first-century Judaism taught now than we did in the nineteenth century. Pusey cannot be blamed for that. But he can be blamed for his hasty reliance on Josephus, as Farrar pointed out. Even in the 1800s there was ample evidence that Josephus should not be granted much weight on the subject of eternal punishment. I will quote from Farrar at length. He gives his own assessment of Josephus in light of Scripture, the view of other Christian scholars, and the view of Jewish scholars. I will simply reproduce Farrar’s footnotes, although I do not have full information on the sources he is quoting. Note that when Farrar refers to an “endless durance,” this means an endless imprisonment (the word is rarely used in English anymore).

Dr. Pusey proceeds to the testimony of Josephus. I had alluded to it, but set it aside as valueless. I did not enter into my grounds for doing so, because I was not pretending to write an elaborate and exhaustive treatise, but only at brief notice, to throw together a sort of outline defence of the half-obliterated truths — for nine-tenths of what I urged is now acknowledged to be truth even by those who write against me — for which I had pleaded. I did, however, give the references to the very passages which Dr. Pusey has quoted, and briefly stated my reasons for paying no further attention to them.

a. In the first of those passages, 5Jos. Antiq. xviii. I, 3. speaking of the Pharisees, Josephus says that “it is their conviction that souls have an immortal force, and that under the earth there are judgments and punishments to those who, in their life, have practiced virtue or vice, and that to the one is adjudged a perpetual imprisonment, and to the others, a facility to live again.”

b. In the second passage, 6Jos. B. F. ii. 8, 14. which throws light on the last words of the former, he says that the Pharisees think “that every soul is indestructible, but that the soul of the good alone passes into a different body, and that the soul of the bad is punished with endless punishment.” And in section xi. Of the same passage he says that the Essenes set apart for the souls of the bad “a gloomy and wintry den, teeming with incessant punishments.”

Now in alluding to this evidence I set it aside because I regard Josephus as an untrustworthy witness. Dr. Pusey calls this an instance of “my wonted impetuosity.” It may be so, but I had reasons for what I said, and I will now give them. My “wonted impetuosity” has never led me to make a single statement for which I could not produce evidence which seemed to me to be ample, nor have my many critics been able to convict me of one demonstrable error.

a. Josephus is an untrustworthy witness, because again and again he falsifies Jewish history, and colours Jewish opinions, in order to please his Pagan readers. He smooths away whatever he though that they would be inclined to ridicule, and deliberately gives to his narrative the tone which seemed likely to make it suit their views. In other words, he Graecises, and he Romanises, and he philosophises, and he Caesarises. How are we to estimate the opinion of a Jew who could speak of the Messianic prophecies as an “ambiguous oracle,” and sink so low, in a peculiarly shameless moment, as to imply that a bourgeois adventurer like Vespasian was the promised Messiah of his race? 7Jos. B. F. vi. 5, 4.

b. I regard Josephus as an untrustworthy witness concerning the religious opinions of the Jews, because they themselves, who are surely the best judges as to their own beliefs, think very slightingly of his assertions. “Josephus,” says ARARBANEL, “wrote while he was in the hands of his masters, under their eyes, and trembling under their law.”

“The representations of Josephus (Ant. xii. And B. F. viii), are of small value,” writes the Jewish historian, DR. JOST. 8Gesch. D. Fudenthums, i. 224.

“We attach but slight weight to Josephus,” says RABBI H. ADLER, “on matters of religious dogma. The first clause of the passage in which he speaks of the belief of the Pharisees betrays the untrustworthiness of the second. There is not the slightest evidence to support the view that the souls of the good only passed into another body. Such a doctrine is not even alluded to in the Talmud.”

“Josephus,” says Hamburder, “was a weak character. The splendour of Rome utterly blinded him. He did not possess the strength of mind to rise above it.” After his visit to Rom “he returned back to Judaea a different man. The object of his Antiquities was to set forth Judaism in a favourable light in the eyes of the educated Gentile world, and it requires a critical eye to distinguish, in his writings, between the false and the true.”

And Christian writers have no less emphatically rejected his testimony. “If we have not cited Josephus,” says DR. POCOCK, “it is no wonder, since in giving the views of the sects he names respecting the other world, he seems to have used words better suited to the fashions and ears of the Greeks and Romans, than such as a scholar of the Jewish law would understand, or deem expressive of his meaning.” 9Notae in Portam Mosis, c. 6

“It is not to be disguised,” says ARCHBISHOP USHER, “that having promised to derive his materials from the sacred records of the Hebrews, without diminution or addition, he has done this with little fidelity.”

Alluding to his total suppression of the most memorable sin of the desert wanderings, namely, the worship of the golden calf, BISHOP WARBURTON says that “this shows his artful address throughout his whole work”; and in a note to the treatise against Apion he says, “This was carrying his complaisance to the Gentiles extremely far, and he misses no opportunity of conciliating their good will.”

“Josephus” says MOSHEIM, “as is well known, attempted to show that there was less difference between the religion of the Jews and those of other nations than people generally supposed; in which he very frequently exceeds all abounds.”

His Antiquities, says M. CHASLES in Etudes sur le premier temps du christianisme, “is a masterpiece of finesse. Never was the truth falsified with a skill more resolute, more subtle, and more deceptive.”

“At the present moment,” says his translator DR. TRAILL, “no well-informed writer taking the religious side of the argument, would think of defending the Jewish historian, or of vouching for his affirmations.”

c. I called him an untrustworthy witness because his Eschatology, as well as his Messianism, is expressly repudiated as of no value. 10(1) Hamburger, Talm. Worterb. ii. 508. Professor Marks and others speak to the same effect. In the remarks which I have quoted from him he refers to the Greeks, and compares the views of the Essenes with theirs. It is to please and conciliate the Greeks that he omits the distinctly Pharisaic belief in the Resurrection (Acts xxiii. 6, 8; xxiv. 15; 2 Macc. 7), because the idea of the Resurrection of the body was made a jest among the Greeks 11Bottcher, De Inferis, 238, 519. He says that Josephus only used the word “Anastasis” once, and then in the sense of “overthrow.” — B. F. vi. 6, 2. Any one who will carefully read the story of the Witch of Endor in the Antiquities (v. xiii.) will see that the selection of words is dictated by a desire to conform to Greek notions. Ewald (History of the People of Israel, v. 366) speaks of his account of the sects as specially arbitrary and devoid of thorough knowledge. (Acts xvii. 18, 32). He deliberately compares the Pharisees to the Stoics, just as he compares the Essene Eschatology with the fables of the Greek Tartarus.

But, waiving these objections altogether, the testimony of Josephus bears but very slightly on my argument. His words, “endless durance,” ειργμος ἀΐδιος are unscriptural. 12In Jude 6 it is used poetically of the chains in which devils are reserved for future judgment; in Rom. i. 20 of the power of God. The latter word is used by Greeks, but never in the New Testament for the future punishment of men; the same remark applies still more strongly to his evidently Greek-coloured account of the fancies of the Essenes, for neither “incessant” nor “vengeance,” nor “den” nor “gloomy” nor “wintry” are words that find, in this connexion, any Scriptural authorization. 13ζοφώδη καὶ χειμέριον… μυχὸν γέμοντα τιμωριῶν ἀδιαλείπτων. – B. F. ii. 8, 11. The three first words do not occur at all in the New Testament. ἀδιάλειπτος in Rom. ix. 2, and 2 Tim. i. 3 (both times within the limits of early life); timwria only in the singular, and only once, Heb. x. 29. If we accept on such authority, the conclusion that the conception of “endless torment” was not unknown to the Graecising Jews of that day, this proves absolutely nothing against my assertion that Gehenna (which Josephus does not mention) had no such meaning normally; and that it is entirely indefensible to make it mean endless torment for all who incur it. Our Lord could only have used the word in its Jewish sense; and for the sake of all who love truth better than human tradition, I must again and again insist that its Jewish sense was not that which is now popularly attached to the word “hell.”

Our assessment of Josephus should be worse now than it was in the nineteenth century, given the discoveries that have been made since then.

There has been evidence for a long time that Josephus is not a dependable historian of theology. Christians have a perfectly understandable fondness for Josephus because he is an early non-Christian witness to the existence of Jesus. When it came to the presentation of Jewish history and thought, however, he was strongly driven by bias and allegiance, and cannot sensibly be thought of as an objective source.

We have evidence from the New Testament that Josephus misrepresents the Pharisees, who, contrary to Josephus, believed in the resurrection of the just and the unjust, as taught in the Hebrew Scripture. We have some reason to believe that he intentionally makes the Sadducees look bad. We have evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that he misrepresents either the Essenes or the Pharisees (depending on who actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is an open question). We also have a strong witness to appeal to, among both Jewish and Christian scholars knowledgeable in Josephus, that Josephus knowingly distorts Jewish history and theology to make it more agreeable to pagan Romans and Greeks.

Lastly, let’s not lose sight of what is at stake in considering Josephus’ description of the views of the Pharisees: Very little! Most Jews were not Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes. They were just everyday religious Jews. There is no evidence that the Pharisees determined what most Jews thought about speculative theological matters, and there was no need for Jesus or his disciples to make a big issue about the fact that their view on hell was mistaken. The average Jew would have neither known nor cared about the theological issues and debates that fascinated Pharisees. We also know that both eternal torment and annihilationism was present in the intertestamental literature, so there was more than one view present in Jewish literature at the time. Finally and of course most importantly, when Jesus and his followers taught about final judgement, they plainly contradicted the notion of hell described as a Pharisaical doctrine by Josephus. If a Christian has resorted to appealing to Josephus in order to defend the doctrine of eternal torment, the well must surely have run dry!

Glenn Peoples

1 Geza Vermes (trans.) The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin, 2004, Rev. Ed.), 394
2 Hymn 14, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 277-278.
3 Hymn 12, in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 270.
4 The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 434.
5 Jos. Antiq. xviii. I, 3.
6 Jos. B. F. ii. 8, 14.
7 Jos. B. F. vi. 5, 4.
8 Gesch. D. Fudenthums, i. 224.
9 Notae in Portam Mosis, c. 6
10 (1) Hamburger, Talm. Worterb. ii. 508. Professor Marks and others speak to the same effect.
11 Bottcher, De Inferis, 238, 519. He says that Josephus only used the word “Anastasis” once, and then in the sense of “overthrow.” — B. F. vi. 6, 2. Any one who will carefully read the story of the Witch of Endor in the Antiquities (v. xiii.) will see that the selection of words is dictated by a desire to conform to Greek notions. Ewald (History of the People of Israel, v. 366) speaks of his account of the sects as specially arbitrary and devoid of thorough knowledge.
12 In Jude 6 it is used poetically of the chains in which devils are reserved for future judgment; in Rom. i. 20 of the power of God.
13 ζοφώδη καὶ χειμέριον… μυχὸν γέμοντα τιμωριῶν ἀδιαλείπτων. – B. F. ii. 8, 11. The three first words do not occur at all in the New Testament. ἀδιάλειπτος in Rom. ix. 2, and 2 Tim. i. 3 (both times within the limits of early life); timwria only in the singular, and only once, Heb. x. 29.