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The Mystery of Justus of Tiberias (1st-Century Fridays #14)

The Mystery of Justus of Tiberias (1st-Century Fridays #14) September 24, 2021

Hi and welcome back! When we checked out Josephus recently, a contemporary of his emerged from the shadows: Justus of Tiberias. We don’t know much about him, which is strange considering what he could have known about the earliest Christians — or even second-hand about Jesus himself! So today, let’s check out Justus of Tiberias — and marvel at the mystery surrounding his absence from the historical record.

the old country
A scene from Galilee. (Emmanuel DYAN, CC.)

(Series tag. In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. We examined this list in full here.)

Everyone, Meet Justus of Tiberias.

Justus of Tiberias lived from 35-100 CE, or at least we reckon this. He was born in a town called Tiberias to a well-regarded father named Pistus.

Tiberias is located on the western side of the Sea of Galilee in what is now Israel. It was quite a new town, too, having been founded in 20 CE — 15 years before Justus’ birth. It was named for the current emperor of the Roman Empire at the time, Tiberius (who ruled from 14-37 CE). Incidentally, Tiberias still exists; some 44k people live there now. It sounds to me like Tiberias was an important and strategic location in the 1st century.

Jews consider Tiberias one of their Four Holy Cities and think its nearby hot springs are curative. There’s some interesting folklore explaining why the water’s so warm, according to Frommer’s travel guides: Apparently King Solomon tricked demons into heating the water to heal sick people in his kingdom. That same site tells us that some Christians think Jesus healed people there too.

La Wiki tells us that Tiberias was a Hellenized Jewish city, meaning Greek culture had influenced it quite a lot. That’s probably not surprising given the town’s name.

The Jewish Encyclopedia says that people probably called Justus “Zadok” and that “Justus” was a common name at the time. (Indeed, Josephus says he had a son with that name in section 1 of his autobiography.) They also tell us that Justus did what he could to fight against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War.

And that’s about it. We don’t know exactly where or how or even when Justus died, nor much else about his life and what he did.

In fact, almost everything we know of Justus, we know from Josephus — his very worst enemy.

The Lost Works of Justus of Tiberias.

We know about two main works written by Justus:

History of the Jewish WarIt covered the First Jewish-Roman War — and apparently mightily criticized Josephus’ role in the war. The book is long lost, but parts of it survives in quotes from Josephus himself, Eusebius (3rd c.), and Jerome (4th c.).

In the Josephus entry to this series, we talked about the First Jewish-Roman War. It ran from 66-73 CE and was an incredibly big deal. The war culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple and the ultimate enslavement of many of the people living there. Josephus surrendered in 67 CE to the Romans, then more of less defected to their side and became an official Roman citizen.

Chronicle of the Jewish Kings from Moses to Herod Agrippa II. You can likely guess what this one was about. Photius, a 9th-century church leader whose name we’ve seen a few times around here, summarized it in a way that resonates across the centuries. I’m not gonna spoil it for you, but trust me, we’ll get to there soon.

On that note, Jerome thought that Justus had also written something called Brief commentary of the Holy Scriptures, but nobody knows anything about it.

Why Josephus Hated Justus.

Josephus and Justus found themselves on opposite sides during the First Jewish-Roman War. Josephus tells us in his autobiography that he felt that Justus had conscripted unwilling men into the Galilean defense force — and that he’d set nearby villages on fire for some reason. He also considered Justus disreputable and conniving.

Both men eventually got captured or surrendered, of course. Josephus was taken in June 67 by Vespasian’s forces, while Justus and his father tried to find sanctuary with Tetrarch Herod Agrippa II. Vespasian demanded that Justus be executed, but Agrippa just imprisoned Justus and his father. That’s where Josephus seems to have found the pair after the fighting was done. He called for them and ate with them, trying to convince them to stop being so troublesome. In the morning, he sent Justus and Pistus away.

In his autobiography, Josephus mentions Justus almost constantly. Section 65 is actually an open letter to his enemy:

And now I am come to this part of my narration, I have a mind to say a few things to Justus, who hath himself written a history concerning these affairs, as also to others who profess to write history, but have little regard to truth, and are not afraid, either out of ill-will or good-will to some persons, to relate falsehoods. [Source.]

(You hear that, JUSTUS? Justus? Do you hear that?!?)

Josephus was completely offended with Justus’ accounting of the war. He felt Justus lied about him and unfairly blamed him for how Galilee had fared during those dark days — and also dishonestly presented events themselves.

As you can guess, Josephus’ red-hot animosity has led some historians to doubt some of the details Josephus provides about Justus.

What Eusebius and Jerome Said About Justus.

We also have a tiny snippet of a quote from Eusebius in the 3rd century that supposedly quotes a bit of Justus’ work. You can find it here, in Chapter 10, section 8. Mostly, Eusebius is talking about Josephus, but he quotes from Section 65 of Josephus’ account, which mentions Justus of course:

In that place he attacks Justus of Tiberias, who, like himself, had attempted to write a history of contemporary events, on the ground that he had not written truthfully.

And that’s it for Eusebius’ mention!

Jerome, writing a bit later in the 4th century, includes Justus in Section 14 of his book De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men). Here’s what he writes:

Justus, of Tiberias of the province Galilee, also attempted to write a History of Jewish affairs and certain brief Commentaries on the Scriptures but Josephus convicts him of falsehood. It is known that he wrote at the same time as Josephus himself.

So at least we know that these two church leaders were aware that Justus existed and had serious beef with Josephus.

Saving History.

This part is where things get really interesting, for me at least.

Photius I of Constantinople was a patriarch of the church and incredibly important to Christianity’s medieval history. Eastern Orthodox Christians made him a saint, calling him Saint Photios the Great. He was one of the most powerful men in the entire religion at the height of his power.

Photius lived from 810 or 820 to 893, so obviously he is way way way out of range of our 1st-Century Friday series on his own. But he was responsible for “the ninth-century renaissance,” according to La Wiki.

During his lifetime, he wrote Bibliotheca. This huge book consisted of 279 volumes of just reviews of various classical authors he’d read. It sounds like a GoodReads account! About half of the books he reviewed have been lost to time.

And one of those books was Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews by Justus of Tiberias.

His comments on Justus can be found in section 33 here.

What Photius Wrote.

Here’s that section:

33. [Justus of Tiberias, Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews]

Read the Chronicle of Justus of Tiberias, entitled A Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews in the form of a genealogy, by Justus of Tiberias. He came from Tiberias in Galilee, from which he took his name. He begins his history with Moses and carries it down to the death of the seventh Agrippa of the family of Herod and the last of the kings of the Jews. His kingdom, which was bestowed upon him by Claudius, was extended by Nero, and still more by Vespasian. He died in the third year of the reign of Trajan, when the history ends.

Then, Photius launches into a critique — and slips an important detail to us about the contents of Justus’ work:

Justus’s style is very concise, and he omits a great deal that is of the utmost importance. Suffering from the common fault of the Jews, to which race he belonged, he does not even mention the coming of Christ, the events of His life, or the miracles performed by Him. His father was a Jew named Pistus; Justus himself, according to Josephus, was one of the most abandoned of men, a slave to vice and greed. He was a political opponent of Josephus, against whom he is said to have concocted several plots; but Josephus, although on several occasions he had his enemy in his power, only chastised him with words and let him go free. It is said that the history which he wrote is in great part fictitious, especially where he describes the Judaeo-Roman war and the capture of Jerusalem. [Source.]

And there we go. Simply amazing.

I feel like I’ve opened the door of history just a crack and peeked through to sheer wonder, only to see the door slam shut again.

What Justus Didn’t Write.

Last time we talked about this topic, we established that Josephus had known nothing whatsoever of Jesus. The entire so-called “Testimony of Josephus” is nothing but a wholesale fraud; there is no center of truth within it. It is all an insert by Eusebius.

(See this paper and here for info, if you missed that post.)

Well, Photius sounds just a little distressed about Justus not mentioning his Savior.

Unfortunately, by then Eusebius’ lie-for-Jesus with the Testimony had entered canon. So no doubt Photius was confused because he had Josephus talking about Jesus, but not Justus. So I’m not going too hard on Photius. If he was sure that Josephus’ Testimony was correct and truthful, obviously there needed to be something about Jesus in Justus’ work.

I’m sure all Photius felt he could do in response to that silence was to reach for Christians’ habitual and long-cherished antisemitism. Suddenly, Justus is silent out of obstinacy and malice.

I’m sure it wasn’t even a very difficult reach to make for Photius, as saintly as Christians still believe he was.

Grading Justus of Tiberias.

Man, I wish we had just a bit more from Justus. He clearly had his finger on the pulse of 1st-century Judea, and he clearly felt very strongly about Jewish independence from Rome. He’d have been right up Jesus’ alley.

However, not even the prime liar-for-Jesus Eusebius could do anything with Justus. Oh, sure, Eusebius could fold, spindle, and mutilate Josephus’ books all day every day, and he did. But he found nothing useful to his cause at all in Justus’ work. And nobody else could find anything either — all the way to Photius.

I strongly suspect that’s why Josephus’ work survived and Justus’ work did not. Josephus was useful to the earliest Christian leaders in their endless scrabbling and clawing for power. But Justus was not.

If Christians’ claims were true, then there really should have been something there. The Gospels make very clear that Galilee was a special place for Jesus, and a huge chunk of Justus and Josephus’ work centers on Galilee. Same goes for Jerusalem. And yet there’s nothing from two historians who were intimately acquainted with both areas, both of whom lived very soon after Jesus supposedly died.

So I give Justus of Tiberias a B. He’s not contemporaneous with Jesus, but of the Johnny-come-lately crowd of sources, his silence on the topic of Jesus spoke volumes for centuries.

I hope we find more of Justus’ work one day. It feels downright unfair for him to be slammed this hard for two thousand years by his worst enemy without getting his say!

NEXT UP: We begin our review of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. (If you’ve read it to prepare, you have my sympathy because it is seriously the worst!) See you tomorrow <3


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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