No, The Author of Acts Didn’t Use Josephus

Erik Manning
9 min readMay 27, 2023

There’s an ongoing debate among scholars about whether the author of the book of Acts used Josephus’ writings. Some critics argue that the author heavily relied on Josephus, which would raise doubts about the author’s claim of being a companion of Paul. This is because Josephus’ writings didn’t appear until the early second century and obviously Luke would’ve long been dead. Although this perspective isn’t widely accepted yet, it’s gained popularity among some scholars and a few online skeptics who believe that Acts is a work of historical fiction. In this post, I aim to explore why I think this theory is really far-fetched.

Let’s Talk Chronology

The order of events is a major point of debate among scholars discussing whether the author of Acts used Josephus’ writings. Luke places the census of Quirinius during Herod the Great’s reign, while Josephus situates it after the deposition of Herod Archelaus. This is a pretty famous alleged error, as critics commonly argue that Luke mistakenly confuses this census with a later one conducted by Quirinius, which took place about a decade later.

Instead of focusing on the accuracy or supposed contradiction between the two accounts (as I do in this video), let’s consider the significance of these differences. The fact that the variations are stark enough that critics claim that these disparities suggest a major mistake on Luke’s part raise serious doubts about his use of Josephus as a source.

Supporters of the “Luke used Josephus” theory, like NT scholar Steve Mason, suggest that Luke’s mention of the census in Acts could be due to a memory lapse. Mason points out a “remarkable coincidence” between Luke connecting Quirinius with the census in Acts and Josephus making a similar connection in his works.

However, this reasoning has faced criticism for being strained. Critics argue that the alleged coincidence is not as remarkable as claimed, as both Luke and Josephus likely drew from a shared pool of historical information instead of Luke relying directly on Josephus. It’s worth noting that Acts and the works of Roman historian Suetonius both mention the expulsion of Jews from Rome during Claudius’ reign. However, no reputable scholar suggests that Suetonius and Luke’s writings depend on each other. Instead, both authors reported it independently because they knew about it. While Mason’s proposal provides a possible explanation, it lacks plausibility.

Rebel Leaders: A Selective Convergence

Similar to the challenge posed by the Quirinus data, there’s another obstacle when trying to determine whether Luke or Josephus used each other as a source. This hurdle arises from a well-known contradiction between the two authors. In Acts 5:36–37, Luke’s Gamaliel presents Theudas’ revolt as preceding Judas the Galilean’s, while Josephus records that Judas’ revolt actually happened approximately forty years before Theudas’ uprising. Some argue that this contradiction suggests Luke’s awareness of Josephus, as Josephus discusses Theudas shortly before mentioning Judas’ sons.

The argument suggests that Luke might have been confused, thinking that since Theudas is mentioned and there’s a reference to Judas, Theudas must have come before Judas. While this explanation is possible, it’s not probable. As NT scholar Jonathan Bernier notes, “Turning to a place where Luke clearly diverges from Josephus in order to demonstrate that Luke knew Josephus only demonstrates how weak the hypothesis is. For the same reason, we should be wary of affirming Josephus’s dependence upon Luke-Acts. Indeed, the divergence gives us reason to suspect that Luke and Josephus are independently reporting on the same course of events, possibly using some sources in common.” (Rethinking the Dating of the New Testament, Bernier, p 57)

Rabbit Trail: Was Luke Talking about the Same Theudas?

Let’s go on a quick side journey and compare Gamaliel’s reference to Theudas and Josephus’ account of a revolutionary named Theudas in Antiquities 20. According to Josephus, Theudas’ rebellion happened during the time of the procurator Fadus, around 44–46 AD. As we discussed earlier, it’s clear that Gamaliel couldn’t have been referring to Theudas’ revolt in the early 30s since it hadn’t happened yet.

Critics argue that Luke made up part of the speech by attributing the mention of Theudas to Gamaliel in a way that doesn’t fit the historical context. However, these explanations overlook the specific details and chronological sequence presented in Gamaliel’s speech. Luke includes precise information, like the involvement of 400 men and the order of events, indicating careful attention. Josephus mentions that it involved “a great part of the people.” Therefore, these scholars try to harmonize the accounts, using these somewhat similar details but assuming an error on Luke’s part. However, it’s questionable how “a great part of the people” really aligns with the existence of only 400 men.

S. B. Hoenig proposes that the Theudas mentioned by Gamaliel could have been an earlier rebel with the same name, who attempted an unsuccessful revolt in A.D. 6. This would mean that Gamaliel’s remarks, made around A.D. 31, are unrelated to the Theudas mentioned by Josephus.

Furthermore, in Acts 5:37, Gamaliel talks about Judas of Galilee, who led an uprising during a period of unrest caused by a census ordered by Quirinius, the legate of Syria, around A.D. 7. This event might have taken place after Theudas’ revolt. Josephus mentions this Judas multiple times and is believed to have founded the extremist group known as the Sicarii or Zealots. Both Theudas and Judas were ultimately killed by the Romans, although Josephus doesn’t mention Judas’ death. If we consider the possibility of a different Theudas, then these accounts don’t contradict Josephus’ writings to begin with. It’s not surprising that multiple individuals shared names like Theudas, just as there were multiple individuals named Judas. “Theodorus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew names “Nathaniel” or possibly “Mattaniah.”

Critics may scoff at this kind of harmonization, but attributing similar events to different individuals is not as unlikely as it may seem at first. Josephus sarcastically tells us that Judea was plagued by widespread acts of robbery, and whenever different groups of rebels found a leader, that person would be declared a king almost immediately (Antiquities 17.10.8). Moreover, historical examples, like the case of two individuals named Lysanias mentioned by Luke, support the possibility of multiple people sharing names here.

The Lesson of Lysanias

For a long time, scholars struggled to identify the Lysanias mentioned by Luke. Skeptics argued that Luke made a mistake because Josephus talked about a ruler named Lysanias who couldn’t have been the same person since the one mentioned by Josephus was executed before Jesus was born.

The situation became even more complex when it turned out that an earlier Lysanias did indeed rule over Abilene, a region in Syria. It seemed too coincidental to have two rulers named Lysanias governing the same region within a hundred-year span. Critics believed that Luke had simply included the name “Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene” to show off his knowledge but got the timing wrong.

However, everything changed when the Abila inscription was discovered. This inscription, found in the Syrian region of Abilene, was written by a freedman named Nymphaeus, who served under the tetrarch Lysanias. It explicitly mentioned Lysanias and highlighted Nymphaeus’ own construction projects dedicated to the “Augusti,” indicating that they were carried out during the time of Tiberius Caesar and his mother, Livia. This discovery provides strong evidence that a tetrarch named Lysanias did govern Abilene during the period when Luke places him.

Therefore, this serves as a reminder that when studying history, it’s important to consider the possibility of multiple individuals sharing the same name, and we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Luke botched things up.

Unlocking the Mystery of “the Egyptian”: Separate Focus

Now, with that rabbit trail out of the way, let’s focus on an interesting question that arises when we think about “the Egyptian” being included among the rebel leaders. If we assume Josephus’ independence or priority, we might wonder why he chose to highlight someone whose name he didn’t know when there were many other rebel figures to consider. The answer becomes clearer when we understand the significance of the Egyptian’s actions, even if his name had been forgotten. Josephus likely emphasized this individual because his sources, whether oral or written, had done the same before him. It’s reasonable to assume that Luke also highlighted Judas, Theudas, and the Egyptian based on his own sources.

Considering the mix of similarities and differences in how they treated these figures, it’s likely that both Luke and Josephus relied on different sources that emphasized these three rebels during the period leading up to the Jewish War. The noticeable variations between Luke and Josephus suggest that they independently reported on the same events, possibly using some shared sources. Therefore, the version of Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5, as presented by Luke, doesn’t provide the strong evidence that these scholars claim it does.

The Overlooked Evidential Value of Casualness

Finally, let’s consider the interesting agreements between Luke and Josephus that are often overlooked by scholars who assume any overlap indicates deliberate dependence. Take Acts 23:1–5 as an example, where Paul appears before the Jewish council and is struck on the mouth at the request of Ananias, the high priest. Those present chastise Paul for insulting the high priest, but Paul defends himself by stating that he didn’t know Ananias was the high priest. He mentions the command not to speak evil of a ruler of one’s people, raising the question of why Paul didn’t recognize Ananias. (Ex 22:28)

To find the answer, we turn to Josephus’ Antiquities. According to Josephus, Ananias, son of Nebedinus, held the office of high priest during Quadratus’ presidency. However, Ananias was later sent to Rome by Quadratus to explain his actions to Claudius Caesar and wasn’t reinstated upon his return. Jonathan succeeded him but was assassinated, leaving the high priest position vacant until Ismael was appointed by King Agrippa. The events in Acts 23 occurred during this period of vacancy, with Ananias assuming the role of high priest without official conferment. While Luke doesn’t explicitly provide this historical context, the interconnected sources support the accuracy of the Acts narrative. Some suggest that Paul’s response was cheeky and sarcastic, as Ananias was acting as an usurper. (See Antiquities 20.5.3, 20.6.2, 20.8.5, 20.8.8.)

Considering this, it seems highly unlikely that Luke, having come across the specific incident described by Josephus within a particular timeframe, would fabricate a dialogue with such subtlety and casualness where Paul subtly mocks an unofficial high priest, yet at the same time make significant errors by having Gamaliel make wildly inaccurate statements about Josephus’ account of Theudas.

Another example of this casual agreement can be found in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 3:10–14, various people ask John the Baptist how they should respond to his message of repentance. Even soldiers approach him and ask, “What should we do?” John responds, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be content with your wages.”

Interestingly, the word used for “soldiers” in this verse is “στρατευόμενοι” (strategoumenoi), which means “those soldiering” or “those being soldiers.” This particular form is used only once in the Gospels and Acts out of the 29 occurrences of the word “στρατιώτης” (stratiotes) and its variations. The use of the present participle in Luke 3:14 suggests that these soldiers were actively serving in the military.

Now, we might wonder how this aligns with the fact that this period, near the beginning of Pilate’s ten-year term, was a relatively peaceful time in Palestine. The only ongoing military conflict during that time was between Herod Antipas and Aretas IV, the king of the Nabateans. Josephus mentions that Herod Antipas had a fortress called Macherus, located in Jordan, approximately 15 miles southeast of the mouth of the Jordan River, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea (Antiquities 18.111). This fortress was situated “on the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod.” Antipas had hired a mercenary army to fight against Aretas, and it’s likely that these passing soldiers encountered John the Baptist as they traveled toward the Macherus fortress. The extremely subtle alignment of these details supports the credibility of Luke’s account. It’s highly implausible to suggest that Luke intentionally included numerous hyper-subtle details from Josephus to add credibility to his account while simultaneously suffering severe memory lapses regarding the census.

Luke Didn’t Use Josephus

In conclusion, it is highly doubtful that the author of Acts directly used Josephus as a source. While we can’t completely dismiss the possibility of some knowledge of Josephus, the evidence strongly points in a different direction. The variations in chronology, the apparent contradictions, and the incidental casualness between allusions all suggest that the author of Acts relied on independent sources rather than directly borrowing from Josephus.

As scholars continue to delve into this topic, it’s worth considering alternative explanations. Here’s a wild one: Could it be possible that Luke, as a meticulous and well-informed historian of the first century, had firsthand access to the accurate information he presented? What exactly makes a genuine travelogue of one of Paul’s companions so darn improbable?

Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on May 27, 2023.

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Erik Manning

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.