Interlocking between Josephus and the Gospels

By James M. Rochford

Interlocking occurs when two independent sources resolve one another’s historical difficulties without meaning to—what some scholars have called “undesigned coincidences.” We have already discussed how the Gospels display “interlocking” between one another (see “Interlocking in the Gospels”). In this article, we will show how the Gospels reflect similar interlocking with secular historians.

Is it really plausible that Herod would kill all of the toddlers in Bethlehem? (Mt. 2:16)

(Mt. 2:16) When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.

Isn’t this a little bit of overkill? (pun intended)

This maniacal massacre fits with the character of Herod the Great. Josephus tells us that Herod the Great killed suspected conspirators,[1] and he even killed the families of those who tried to assassinate him.[2]

Herod killed three of his sons,[3] and he ordered his wife Mariamne to be killed after his death because he “was afraid of the injury that should be offered him, if, after his death, she, for her beauty, should be engaged to some other man.”[4] Eventually, he had her killed.[5]

Finally, Herod’s dying wish was to have all of the Jewish aristocracy killed at the time of his death, because he wanted to make sure that people were genuinely mourning and wailing when he died![6]

Some still object that this account must be exaggerated, because how could Herod have all of the newborns killed? But we must ask exactly how large of a town we think Bethlehem to be. R.T. France writes, “Estimates of the total population of Bethlehem in the first century are generally under 1,000, which would mean that the number of male children up to two years old at any one time could hardly be more than 20, even allowing for ‘all its district.’ Terrible as such a slaughter would be for the local community, it is not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus.”[7]

Why was Joseph afraid to go to Judea? (Mt. 2:19-22)

(Mt. 2:19-22) When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee.

Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and his son Herod Archelaus took over Judea as its ruler or “ethnarch” for nine years (4 BC-AD 6).[8] Right after his father’s death, a seditious group challenged him, and he ordered a massive massacre. His horsemen alone “slew three thousand men,”[9] and Archelaus sent everyone home, cancelling the festival of the Passover. Archelaus was such a “barbarous and tyrannical” leader that the Jewish people protested to Augustus Caesar in Rome.[10] Consequently, Caesar removed Archelaus from power in AD 6. Herod the Great’s other son (Herod Antipas) took over in Judea.[11]

Joseph was returning to Jerusalem for Passover in 4 BC, when the people would’ve been fleeing the massacre. On the road, it isn’t unlikely to imagine Joseph asking, “Where is everyone going?” To which the people would’ve replied, “Didn’t you hear about Archelaus? He slaughtered thousands of people, Passover is cancelled!” Consequently, we can see why Joseph was “afraid” and decided to reroute to Galilee, instead of Judea.

Why did Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple at age 12? (Lk. 2:41-42)

(Lk. 2:41-42) Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast.

Why did Jesus’ parents go to the Temple “every year” without Jesus, but waited until he was twelve years old to take him? Some could argue that Joseph and Mary were waiting until Jesus was thirteen years old and had become a “son of the commandment” having his Bar-Mitzvah (Mishnah, Aboth 5:21; Niddah 5:6). This is certainly a possible explanation.

On the other hand, Archelaus took power in 4 BC, and in the “tenth year of his government” he was “accused before Caesar” and thrown out of power.[12] Incidentally, this would be in the year AD 6. Since Jesus was most likely born in 5 BC, this means that his parents may have waited until Archelaus was gone before they brought him for the Passover.[13]

How long did it take to rebuild the Temple? (Jn. 2:20)

(Jn. 2:20) The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”

The religious leaders don’t give a round number like forty or fifty years. Instead, “forty-six years” is very specific. Does this fit with the chronology of the life of Christ?

Yes it does! Josephus states that Herod the Great began the rebuilding of the Temple “in the eighteenth year of his reign,”[14] which would be roughly 20-19 BC. Thus, if 46 years passed from this event, this would place the events of John 2 around AD 27-28.

Why was Herod afraid of John the Baptist? (Mk. 6:17-18, 20)

(Mk. 6:17-18) Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

(Mk. 6:20) Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.

The text records that Herod Antipas was afraid of John. Why? He didn’t lead a militia, or preach a message of revolt? This text tells us that Herod was afraid because John the Baptist was a “righteous and holy man.” But again, why would this terrorize Herod?

It isn’t unlikely that Herod was religiously superstitious: He was afraid that God would judge him if he harmed John. Remember, when Herod heard about Jesus, his immediate reaction was one of guilt (and fear?) that God had raised John the Baptist from the dead (Mk. 6:16).

All of this fits with what we know from Josephus. According to Josephus, Herod was afraid of John the Baptist’s large public ministry,[15] and after John’s death, the people superstitiously thought that God had defeated Herod’s “army… as a punishment upon Herod,” and this was “a mark of God’s displeasure against him.”[16]

Why did the Samaritans not receive Jesus? (Lk. 9:51-53)

(Lk. 9:51-53) He was determined to go to Jerusalem; 52 and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. 53 But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem.

Jesus was rejected for many reasons, but this one is certainly odd. Luke tells us that the Samaritans rejected Jesus. Why? It was “because He was traveling toward Jerusalem.” Why would Jesus’ travel plans result in him being rejected by this specific group of people?

Josephus tells us that it was customary for the Galileans to travel through Samaria on their way to the Passover. However, on one occasion shortly after the time of Christ, the Samaritans had “killed a great many of them [the Galileans].”[17] Elsewhere, we read that the Galileans were travelling through Geman (a Samaritan city), and the Samaritans killed a Galilean and “a vast number of people ran together out of Galilee, in order to fight with the Samaritans.”[18] Josephus doesn’t think to record a reason for why the Samaritans killed these Galileans—almost as if this was common place.

Why did Jesus pay a two-drachma tax? (Mt. 17:24-27)

(Mt. 17:24) When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?”

In Jesus’ day, the Temple-tax issued by the religious leaders was two-drachma—precisely what Matthew records. Josephus states, “The Jews… deposited in them that half shekel which everyone, by the custom of our country, offers unto God.”[19]

How much was a shekel? A Jewish shekel was “the equivalent of four Greek drachmas.”[20] Therefore, a “half shekel” (in the words of Josephus) would be equivalent to “two-drachma” (in the words of Matthew).

Now before you minimize this confirmation, ask yourself: Do I know the income tax rate 30 years ago in the United Kingdom? Even if I was a citizen of the UK (which I am not), this would be extremely hard to know or remember (especially without luxuries like Wikipedia or Google!). However, Matthew knew the precise Temple-tax during this time period.

After the Jewish War in AD 70, Vespasian made the Jews pay their tax to the temple of the god Jupiter.[21] Hence, R.T. France writes, “It is one of the incidental indications that Matthew’s gospel was written before AD 70 that he can record with approval Jesus’ acceptance of the temple tax, which after AD 70 would have had a quite different connotation of the support of pagan worship.”[22]

Why do the Sadducees deny the resurrection? (Mt. 22:23)

(Mt. 22:23) On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him.

The Sadducees disappeared when Jerusalem fell and the Temple burned in AD 70. Yet, Matthew knows one of their particular beliefs—namely, they denied the resurrection. This aligns with Josephus, who states, “The doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies… but this doctrine is received but by a few.”[23] Here, Josephus affirms (1) that the Sadducees denied the afterlife and (2) that very few Jews held this belief. This means that Matthew accurately knew the beliefs of this small sect of Judaism, and he knew this even though they went out of existence after AD 70.

Why were the religious leaders worried about a riot during Passover? (Mt. 26:4-5)

(Mt. 26:4-5) [The religious leaders] plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. 5 But they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people.

Josephus records an incident shortly after the time of Christ when a Roman regiment stood at the Temple, and a soldier “let down his breeches, and exposed his privy members to the multitude.” Josephus records that this precipitated a riot that killed somewhere between 10,000[24] and 20,000 people.[25] Again, while this event happened shortly after the time of Jesus (under the Roman procurator Ventidius Cumanus, AD 48-52), Josephus records that Cumanus was doing “no more than what the former procurators of Judea did at such festivals.”[26] In other words, the tensions between the Jews and Romans during these festivals were high, and would even turn into full-blown riots.

Further Reading

John James Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings Both of the Old and New Testament (1847). See his appendix titled, “Containing Undesigned Coincidences between the Gospels, Acts, and Josephus.”

Nathaniel Lardner, Credibility of the Gospel History.

William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity (Part II, chapter 6).

[1] Antiquities, 16.392-394, 17.182-187.

[2] Antiquities, 15.280-290.

[3] The sons were Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater. Antiquities, 16.392-394, 17.182-187.

[4] Antiquities, 15.66.

[5] Antiquities, 15.222-236.

[6] Fortunately, this was never brought to fruition. Antiquities, 17.174-178.

[7] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), p.85.

[8] Antiquities, 17.11.4.

[9] Antiquities, 17.9.3.

[10] Antiquities, 17.13.3.

[11] Antiquities, 17.9.3.

[12] Antiquities, 17.13.2.

[13] Some readers might calculate only eleven years between these two events, but they need to remember that there is no “year zero.” The calendar moved from December 31, 1 BC to January 1, AD 1. This is similar to how we have no “zero century,” but instead, we move from the first century BC to the first century AD.

[14] Antiquities, 15.380.

[15] Antiquities, 18.118.

[16] Antiquities, 18.118.

[17] Antiquities, 20.118.

[18] Wars of the Jews, 2.231.

[19] Antiquities, 18.9.1.

[20] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), p.668.

[21] Wars of the Jews, 7.218.

[22] See footnote. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), p.668.

[23] Antiquities, 18.1.4.

[24] Wars of the Jews, 2.224.

[25] Antiquities, 20.112.

[26] Antiquities, 20.107.