Josephus says, ‘Genesis means what it says!’
An engraving of Flavius Josephus.
Many people who compromise on the plain meaning of Genesis claim that the literal interpretation is a modern invention. Instead, they claim that most commentators in the past took a long-age view.
On the contrary, the vast majority interpreted the days of Genesis 1 as ordinary days. Furthermore, even those who did not, such as Origen and Augustine, vigorously attacked long-age ideas and affirmed that the world was only thousands of years old.1 Among the Jewish commentators, the first-century historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37–ca. 100) stands out from the rest.
Having been born in Judea and living there in his formative years, Josephus is unquestionably the most important Jewish historian outside of Scripture. Were it not for Josephus, entire periods of Jewish history would have been lost in the mists of time. Like any good Jew, Josephus recognized that one could not understand Jewish history without first understanding its religion. As Scripture defines Judaism, Josephus first explained Judaism by defining Scripture and the Jewish love of their holy books.
“For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from, and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine;2 and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; … the prophets … in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.”3
As always, Josephus cuts to the heart of the matter. No further explanation is needed to clarify his plain words. He explicitly states that man had been around for only 3,000 years by the time of Moses. He goes on to say that Jews hold Scripture so sacred that they would rather die than add to, subtract from, or change any of the divine doctrines of Scripture!4
In the preface to Antiquities, easily his most important work, Josephus further explains his interpretation of Scripture. When explaining why Moses began with the creation account, Josephus records that Moses taught humanity that God blesses those who love and serve Him.
“Now when Moses was desirous to teach this lesson to his countrymen, he did not begin the establishment of his laws after the same manner that other legislators did; I mean, upon contracts and other rights between one man and another, but by raising their minds upward to regard God, and his creation of the world; and by persuading them, that we men are the most excellent of the creatures of God upon earth. Now when once he had brought them to submit to religion, he easily persuaded them to submit in all other things; … while our legislator speaks some things wisely, but enigmatically, and others under a decent allegory,5 but still explains such things as required a direct explanation plainly and expressly.”6
After explaining his methodology, Josephus launches into the Creation account. He quickly established that he considers Moses’ account to be quite literal. He comments, ‘And this was indeed the first day’7 and ‘in just six days the world, and all that is therein, was made.’8 Josephus gives no indication that he considers these words to be enigmatic or allegorical. His comments are as plain in their meaning as Moses’ words in Genesis.
Josephus writes next of Eden, the Fall, and then the ten generations from Adam to Noah.8 Josephus allows no room for gaps between Adam and the Flood,9 as shown above with the 3,000 years between Moses and Adam.10 Several times in his discourse on the Flood (which he records as global with ‘no place’ uncovered11), Josephus confirms the absence of gaps in the Genesis 5 genealogies.12
Throughout his writings, Josephus notes any Jewish sect that holds a different view from the mainstream position he records. Though he speaks of differences in doctrine between Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots, he records not even a single dissenting Jewish voice on these key interpretations of Genesis 1–11.13 Clearly, for Josephus, if there were any dissent, it was not even worth mentioning, because he had shown how the meaning was unambiguous.
During his explanation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Josephus confronts opponents of Judaism who said the same things as modern opponents of Christianity. In Josephus’s day, the pagan Greek historians denied the history of the Jewish people as recorded in Scripture. Similarly, in our day, uniformitarian ‘scientists’ deny the history of the earth and life upon it, likewise recorded in the Bible. Josephus replies to this charge in the same manner that today’s church must respond to the opponents of a literal Genesis who claim that only secular science should speak on origins:
“And now, in the first place, I cannot but greatly wonder at those men who suppose that we must attend to none but Greeks, when we are inquiring about the most ancient facts, and must inform ourselves of their truth from them only, while we must not believe ourselves nor other men; …
“Nay, who is there that cannot easily gather from the Greek writers themselves, that they knew but little on any good foundation when they set to write, but rather wrote their histories from their own conjectures? Accordingly, they confute one another in their own books on purpose, and are not ashamed to give us the most contradictory accounts of the same things.”14
Josephus’s writings should encourage the modern Church to stand strong on Genesis and its account of the Earth’s beginning. Josephus shows that the consistent Jewish stance on Genesis in Jesus’ land and time was, ‘Genesis means what it says.’
Bust of Josephus.
Who was Josephus?
Josephus’s original name was Joseph bar Matthias. Although he was born a Sadducee and a friend of the Essenes, he trained as a Pharisee. Josephus also went to Rome with a diplomatic envoy from Jerusalem and later spent time in the Zealot militia.
During the Jewish Revolt of AD 66, he (unsuccessfully) defended Galilee against the Romans. He barely escaped the massacre of his garrison in AD 67, and was captured and taken to the Roman general Vespasian. Josephus shrewdly prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor. He freed Josephus when this occurred in AD 69. Seeing the hopelessness of resistance, Josephus tried to persuade the Jews to surrender Jerusalem, so he was regarded as a traitor. Instead, Jerusalem was captured violently in AD 70. Soon after, Vespasian recognized Josephus’ intellect and affinities for history.
Under Imperial patronage, Josephus produced two multi-volume works on Jewish history—Wars of the Jews (focusing on the Maccabean revolt up to the fall of Jerusalem, ca. 145 BC to AD 70) and Antiquities of the Jews (a commentary on Jewish Scripture, tradition, and folklore covering Creation to 145 BC). In AD 100, he published Against Apion (a Jewish apologetic) and The Life of Flavius Josephus (an autobiography) under the patronage of a private citizen.
- What would we know about creation if we only had the New Testament? (Creation Magazine LIVE! 3-01)
- Why is origins important? (Creation Magazine LIVE! 3-18)
- Genesis: Bible authors believed it to be history
References and notes
- This is thoroughly documented in Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 3, Master Books, Arkansas, USA, 2004, which includes sections on Josephus. Return to text.
- The Jewish canon contains the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, but they are numbered and grouped differently (for example, they counted all the minor prophets as one book—The Book of the Twelve). Return to text.
- Against Apion, 1.8, p. 776, emphasis added. All quotations from Josephus taken from Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged, translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Massachusetts, USA, 1987. These books are also available in the Online Bible. Return to text.
- Against Apion, 1.42. And many Jews have died rather than compromise Scripture and God’s commands. The Maccabean revolt started when one man and his five sons refused to let Hellenists sacrifice to Greek gods in the Jewish Temple. Return to text.
- Josephus uses ‘allegory’ as we would use ‘typology’. The difference is that typological events really happened and have a deeper, spiritual meaning underneath the literal one (you might think of it as the ‘preaching point’). By his own account, Josephus prefers the literal over any figurative meaning and uses ‘allegory’ exactly as Paul does in Galatians 4:24. Return to text.
- Antiquities Preface, 4. Return to text.
- Antiquities 1.1.1, emphasis added. Return to text.
- Antiquities 1.1.1, emphasis added. Return to text.
- The Flood occurred 2,656 years after Creation in most copies of Antiquities 1.3.3. This agrees with the Greek Septuagint translation (ca. 250 BC), while our English Bibles are mainly translated from the standard Hebrew (Masoretic) text, which says 1,656 (see also Hansen, P., Real History: The Timeline of the Bible, Creation 27(4):28–29, 2005). Dr Pete Williams shows why the Masoretic Text is likely to be closer to the original Hebrew in ‘Some remarks preliminary to a Biblical chronology’, J. Creation 12(1):98–106, 1998; creation.com/chronology.
It is possible that Josephus couldn’t find a Hebrew manuscript in the heart of the Empire, or else later scribes changed Josephus’ Hebrew numbers to conform to the Septuagint. Indeed, a few very old manuscripts of Josephus agree with the later Masoretic text. Those manuscripts report 1_56 years between Creation and the Flood (the centuries marker is smudged beyond recognition). Return to text.
- Indeed, the book’s heading is, ‘Containing the interval of three thousand eight hundred and thirty-three years: From the Creation to the death of Isaac.’ Once again, the expanded figures are due to Septuagint numbers, but the point is still that there is no room for millions of years since creation. Return to text.
- Antiquities 1.3.5. Return to text.
- Antiquities 1.3.3–4. Return to text.
- The groups themselves record some few differences amongst individual members, but the vast majority follow the literal interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Return to text.
- Against Apion 1.2, 3. Return to text.