Summery of Portents in Josephus and in the Gospels – S.V. McCasland

This is a review, for memory’s sake, of an article related to my eventual thesis.

Entitled, Portents in Josephus and in the Gospels[1], the author, S.V. McCasland makes the case that the ‘signs’ of Josephus were of pagan origin, rather than of Hebrew style. He begins by quoting Bultmann in noting that the literary form of the author, in this case both Josephus and the Evangelists, cannot be seen as an “aesthetic” concept but must be rather understood as a sociological one. For Mark, then, we have to understand not just  what we expect Mark to be saying as Jew, but as a Jew in a Roman world, and perhaps, look more closely for the Sitz im Leben, beginning there and only then seek to perform a proper exegetical surgery. We understand Josephus’ station in life, as he was a former Jewish officer who was caught by Vespasian, and turning traitor, because the chief propagandist of the Imperial Cult, going so far as to declare Vespasian the Jewish Messiah. But, what is Mark’s? In this, I have to agree with S.J. Case who writes,

Every statement in the records is to be judged by the degree of its suitableness to the distinctive environment of Jesus, on the one hand, and to that of the framers of the gospel tradition at one or another stage in the history of Christian on the other[2].

In examining the three selected passages, they have been singled out exactly because they suit the determined sitz im leben more so than the previous suggested situation and context, because they find suitable historical referents which settle Mark’s sitz im leben.

McCasland suggests that the miracles stories are made difficult to suggest by the fact that some are explainable while others are not. Healings would fall into the first category, but expulsion of demons into the latter. He also suggests that they are made difficult by our inability to determine the context, from language to location, of when they were first produced. Given that the Gospels were given in an oral society, it would behoove us then to try to determine similarities with other stories and to, again, examine every record by whether or not they are suitable to the time of Jesus. This feeds into the goal of his paper, to determine the original place of the signs mentioned in Josephus which were to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem.

Here, for future reference, McCasland draws me away from worrying about the origin of Tacitus’ voice which he mentioned coming from the Temple, as he is able to piece together the portents which Josephus used, including a divine voice.

I note his statement, “To catalogue the woes that shall precede the messianic age is the usual device of this literature.” Later, he notes that only Matthew and Luke use portents to describe the birth of Christ and a few to describe the death of Christ. (326)

McCaseland notes that the prophet of which Josephus spoke was the only Hebrew element to his story, with everything else, including dreams and signs, being a regular feature in pagan tales. (329; see also 330).

He notes on 331 that the “flames of war were fed by Messianic expectations.” This is true in the case of one of the identified historical referents. He concludes on 332 that “There is no sufficient reason to doubt that these portents of Josephus are a true reflection of the apocalyptic mind in Jerusalem.

I find it ironic that as Rome was adopting Jewish Messianic signs to proclaim the Roman Emperor Messiah, the Jews were busy adopting pagan references to proclaim him not.

Of interest is the dating of Josephus to the years between 75-79. He notes, further, that Josephus wrote them down in 70, giving the solidification of the legend only five years to take hold (334).



[1] McCasland, S. V. (1932). Portents in Josephus and in the Gospels. Journal of Biblical Literature, 51(4), 323-335

[2] Case, S.J., Jesus: A New Biography, 1927, 115

Post By Joel Watts (10,058 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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4 thoughts on Summery of Portents in Josephus and in the Gospels – S.V. McCasland

  1. In the Dead Sea Scrolls [pre-NT] there is great distress “It will be a time of suffering for all the nation [the nation of Israel] redeemed by God. Of all their sufferings, none will be like this, hastening till eternal redemption is fulfilled…” It involves a battle that centers round Jerusalem, a battle that the scrolls even say would take place within a generation and the time of suffering will be like none other, followed by the destruction of all the sons of darkness by the sons of light, and “hastening till eternal redemption is fulfilled.” The battle will include good and evil angels as well (another hallmark of apocalyptic), and God’s intervention, followed by eternal redemption. For it is the final battle.

    Dead Sea Scroll 1Q33 (1QM) = 1Q War Scroll

    (Column 1) “The first attack by the sons of light will be launched against the sons of darkness [that include all the armies of the world], against the army of Belial [Belial = supernatural evil figure]… The sons of Levi, the sons of Judah and the sons of Benjamin [in other words, “The Hebrews”], will wage war against them [the sons of darkness]… against all their bands… And there will be no escape for any of the sons of darkness… And the sons of justice shall shine to all the edges of the earth, they shall go on shining…

    “There will be a battle, and savage destruction before the God of Israel, for this will be the day determined by Him since ancient times for the war of extermination against the sons of darkness… It will be a time of suffering for all the nation [the nation of Israel] redeemed by God. Of all their sufferings, none will be like this, hastening till eternal redemption is fulfilled… The army of Belial will gird themselves in order to force the army of light to retreat. There will be infantry battalions [so large as to] melt the heart [at their sight], but God’s might will strengthen the heart of the sons of light… And God’s great hand will subdue Belial and all the [evil] angels of His dominion and all the [evil] men of his lot… He [God] will [show Himself] to assist the truth, for the destruction of the sons of darkness…

    Ending in “eternal redemption.” The fact that the NT description is slightly different does not diminish the fact that a great time of distress involving Jerusalem followed soon thereafter by “eternal redemption” is something in common with both views. Evil is destroyed forever more.

  2. PREDICTING the destruction of Jerusalem wasn’t hard. It was also part of the thing prophets did. They predicted the destruction of Jersualem in the OT and Jesus knew the OT.

    First century Jews were grumbling and agitating against Roman rule before Jesus was born. Anti-Roman incidents and minor revolts meant that the Romans had to keep garrisons in Palestine. The Jews had previously survived the destruction of their first temple by the Babylonians and returned to Palestine to renew their kingdom, but then the Greek generals of Alexander took over Palestine and attempted to force the Jews to Hellenize themselves and desecrated the Jewish Temple, so the Jews revolted and after much blood was shed and hundreds of Jews crucified they won back their kingdom after a revolt led by the Maccabees, and so Jewish rulers (the Hasmoneans) ruled Palestine for a while Then the Romans arrived and the barracks of their soldiers were visible beside the Temple. The Jews were looking once again for how they might regain their kingdom, and the already mentioned incidents and revolts began to occur. “There were a variety of underlying causes that helped spark [the 70 CE] revolt; social tensions, bad Roman procurators, the divisions amongst the ruling class, the rise of banditry and poor harvests, but perhaps the most significant feature of all was the apocalyptic storm brewing over first-century Palestine.”

    “Of all the messianic movements one in particular drew the most attention; the Essene sect, the community that [allegedly] wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, based their calculations on the ‘end of days’ on a prophecy from the book of Daniel. Josephus says that the major impetus inspiring the Jewish revolt of 70 CE against Roman rule was an ‘oracle found in the sacred scriptures.’ This oracle effectively said when the time came ‘one from their own country would become ruler of the world.’ The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls calculated that the year 26/27 CE would usher in the messianic age. There was never a time previously quite like it, and there has never been one since; two messiahs, one king one priest would rule over Palestine. The fervor with which many fought against the greatest power of the ancient world could only have come from such beliefs; that the end of days was nigh.” [to quote Susan Sorek's introduction to The Jews Against Rome: War in Palestine AD 66-73, Continuum, 2008]

    Some anti-Roman Jewish extremists equated the Evil Kingdom of Daniel’s prophecy with Rome and the end of days (“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” Dan 2:44, NIV) (p. 40 of The Jews Against Rome) The book of Daniel is also a work that nobody seems to have known a thing about until the era of the Maccabean revolt against Greek rulers of Palestine, and the book itself claims it had been “sealed until the time of the end” (“He replied, ‘Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end.’” Dan 12:9, NIV) That implies that the book of Daniel was “unsealed” during the era of the Maccabean revolt and continued to attract increasing interest from the era of the Maccabean revolt up till the first century growing agitations against Rome.

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