What Josephus Really Said About Reincarnation

The claim that Flavius Josephus said Jews believe in reincarnation is simply false.

This romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appeared in William Whiston's translation of his works.
This romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appeared in William Whiston's translation of his works. (photo: Register Files)

Recently we began looking at claims that the Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37-c. 100) said that his people believed in reincarnation.

This is not true.

As we’ve already seen, there were two general views of the afterlife among Jews in his day.

One view—which was a minority position held by the Sadducees—claimed that there was no afterlife at all.

The other view—which was the majority position and which was held by Pharisees, Christians, and other Jews—claimed the dead would be resurrected on the last day.

For a discussion of evidence regarding these views, see my previous blog post.

In this post, we’ll look at the writings of Josephus himself.


1) What Josephus might have said

Josephus’s surviving works were written to a Greco-Roman audience, following the disastrous Jewish War of the A.D. 60s, when the Jews had a very bad reputation around the Mediterranean world.

Consequently, in his writings Josephus does his best to rehabilitate his co-religionists’ reputation, and sometimes he stretches the truth to do so.

If Josephus had said that Jews believe in reincarnation, it wouldn’t have been because this was true—the evidence against that in this period is just too strong—but because he wanted to make his countrymen seem less weird to his audience, many of whom (being Greco-Romans) did believe in reincarnation.

Even that would be unlikely, though, because all one of his readers would have had to do is ask a local Jew whether their people believed in reincarnation, and they would have gotten a snorting, derisive reply, possibly with the respondent heaping scorn on Josephus.

Josephus was too smart to make such an easily falsifiable claim.

He would have been particularly unlikely to make one because he had Jewish critics, and if there was any reputation he cared about more than that of his people, it was his own.

Josephus was not going to make an easily falsifiable claim that could damage his own reputation!

Consequently, it would be more likely that he would have explained Jewish beliefs about the afterlife in a way that didn’t make them seem too weird, but that wasn’t false.

In other words, he might have soft-pedaled Jewish belief in resurrection, but he wouldn’t have outright falsified it.

As we’ll see, it looks like that’s precisely what he did.


2) Josephus and the Jewish sects

In his autobiography (see Life 1-2[1-12]), Josephus tells us that he grew up in a priestly family and was very studious.

When he was 16, he decided to explore the different Jewish sects and determine which was best.

He therefore explored the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, as well as staying with an ascetic in the desert named Banus. Then, at age 19, he decided to be a Pharisee.

As a teenager, Josephus could not have made a thorough exploration of the teachings of these groups, especially in that amount of time.

He even says he stayed with Banus for three years, which on its face would have consumed the whole period of investigation (though in ancient reckoning “three years” might mean only two years plus part of a third).

Though he may not have made a rigorous, detailed study of these groups as a young man, he did grow up among them, and he continued to live among them as an adult, and it is certain that he was familiar with their principal teachings and main points of difference with each other.

This would have included an awareness of the dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over whether there is a resurrection or whether there is no afterlife.

As a Pharisee, he certainly would have known that the sect he identified with believed in resurrection, and this makes it extraordinarily unlikely that he would say his countrymen believed in reincarnation.

So why would anyone think he did?


3) Josephus in Whiston’s Translation

In 1736, a man named William Whiston published a translation of Josephus’s works, and this became the standard English edition of them.

Today it is in the public domain, and it is all over the Internet.

Unfortunately, it’s also quite flawed, and in a moment we’ll see an example of that.

In his history of the Jewish War of the A.D. 60s, Josephus explains the different Jewish sects for the benefit of his readers. In doing so, he notes that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, and—in Whiston’s translation—this is what he says about the Pharisees’ belief on the matter:

They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment (War 2:8:14[163]).

Note the phrase: “into other bodies” (plural).

To an inattentive reader, or one unfamiliar with what the Pharisees actually taught, this could suggest reincarnation—that after death a righteous man’s soul would enter one body, only to die and enter another, and so on—life after life.

However, this is a place where Whiston’s translation is mistaken.

I checked the Greek, and what Josephus actually says is that the soul of the good man enters eis heteron sōma—“into another body” (singular).

What Josephus is talking about here is the reconstituted, resurrected body they will receive on the last day—not a series of bodies received in different lifetimes during history.

It’s the same basic mode of language St. Paul uses when—in the middle of a passionate defense of the doctrine of resurrection—he writes:

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what sort of body do they come?” Foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. . . .

Thus also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruptibility. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:35-36, 42-44, LEB).

St. Paul makes it clear that there is both continuity and difference between the bodies we have in this life and the resurrected bodies we will one day receive.

There is continuity because it is fundamentally the same body: “It” (singular) is sown, and “it” is raised.

But there is also a difference, because its initial condition is natural and corruptible and its later condition is spiritual and incorruptible.

Reflecting this continuity-and-difference, Paul compares our bodies to seeds which are sown in the ground and then transform into mature plants.

Yet the continuity between the two does not stop him from speaking of their two conditions as if they were two bodies—a natural one and a spiritual one.

In reality, it’s one body that experiences a dramatic change in condition.

Josephus is describing the same thing, only he isn’t making clear the continuity between the body we have in this life and the resurrected body—presumably to keep the Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection from seeming “too weird” for his Greco-Roman audience.

He thus accurately describes the Sadducees’ disbelief in the afterlife and the Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection on the last day, but he describes it in a way that keeps it from sounding too strange for his readers.


4) Josephus on suicide and resurrection

The above passage isn’t the only one which people have pointed to as evidence for Josephus saying Jews believe in reincarnation, however, the others fare no better.

Later in Jewish War, Josephus recounts a speech he gave to his men when they were about to be captured by the Romans and wanted to commit suicide. In counseling them against this, he reports saying:

Do not you know that those who depart out of this life, according to the law of nature [i.e., who die a natural death], and pay that debt which was received from God, when he that lent it us is pleased to require it back, enjoy eternal fame?

That their houses and their posterity are sure, that their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies; while the souls of those whose hands have acted madly against themselves [i.e., by committing suicide], are received by the darkest place in Hades, and while God, who is their father, punishes those that offend against either of them in their posterity? (War 3:8:5[374-375]).

Here there is a plural in the Greek: agnois . . . sōmasin—“(into) pure bodies” (plural).

The reason is that Josephus is trying to persuade a group of men not to kill themselves, and so he’s contrasting the fate of those who don’t commit suicide with the fate of those who do. This is the reason he uses the plural here.

It’s not that a single righteous man will enter multiple bodies over the course of history. It’s that multiple righteous men will each enter a single body on the last day.

What makes this certain is his reference to what happens before hand: The souls of the righteous “obtain a most holy place in heaven” and then at the end of the world—“in the revolution of ages”—they are again returned to bodily form.

This is a description of the normal Pharisaic (and Christian) belief in the soul continuing in the intermediate state until the eventual, eschatological resurrection.


5) Josephus on the rewards of keeping God’s law

In a similar vein, Josephus elsewhere discusses the rewards his people believed they would gain for keeping God’s law as given by Moses.

Surprisingly, this passage has also been appeal to as teaching reincarnation, but a careful reading indicates it does not. Josephus writes:

[T]he reward for such as live exactly according to the laws, is not silver or gold; it is not a garland of olive branches or of smallage [i.e., parsley], nor any such public sign of commendation; but every good man hath his own conscience bearing witness to himself, and by virtue of our legislator’s [Moses’] prophetic spirit, and of the firm security God himself affords such a one, he believes that God hath made this grant to those that observe these laws, even though they be obliged readily to die for them, that they shall come into being again, and at a certain revolution of things receive a better life than they had enjoyed before (Against Apion 2:31[217-218]).

There is even less here than in previous passages to suggest reincarnation.

There is no explicit mention of “bodies”—either singular or plural, in the Greek or the English—and we again have the time cue telling us when the restoration to life will happen.

What Josephus says in the Greek is that it will happen ek peritropēs—literally, “at (the) turning round/revolution.”

This is a shortened form of the Greek phrase he used in his speech to his men, when he said they would be reembodied ek peritropēs aiōnōn—“at the turning round/revolution of the ages.”

The meaning is the same: The resurrection will happen at the last day, at the turning of the ages.

Josephus is simply describing belief in the eschatological resurrection, which was normal among Jews (with the exception of the Sadducees, who denied the afterlife).


6) Confirmation from the Antiquities

Josephus also discusses the major Jewish sects in his longest work, Antiquities of the Jews, and there we find further confirmation. Josephus writes:

They [the Pharisees] also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again. . . .

But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies. (18:1:3-4[14, 16]).

Here again we have the expected contrast between the Sadducees’ denial of the afterlife and the Pharisees’ belief that, after death, the soul will experience rewards or punishment, with the righteous being given new life at the resurrection of the dead.


7) Conclusion

From what we’ve seen, there is no basis for the claim that Josephus teaches that Jews in general, or the Pharisees in particular, believe in reincarnation.

He accurately describes the standard contrast between the Sadducees’ disbelief in the afterlife and the Pharisees’ belief in resurrection on the last day—a view that was held broadly among non-Sadducee Jews, including the early Christian movement.

Josephus does not stress that the righteous will rise in the same body they had in this life—presumably because that would harm his audience’s impression of Jews—but it is clear from what he says that the return to life happens once, on the last day, rather than over and over through history.

It is less clear whether he thinks the wicked will be raised. Although he does not specifically deny that they will be resurrected, one could conclude from what he writes that they will not be.

Despite the fact Daniel speaks of a resurrection of the wicked, the belief that the wicked would not be raised may have been common, and this may have left traces in the language even of Jews who did believe in the resurrection of the wicked (as with the New Testament’s identification of “the resurrection” and “the resurrection to/of life” with the righteous; see our previous post).

The claim that Josephus said Jews believe in reincarnation, however, is simply false.