Repent About Repentance Part II – Repentance in the Writings of Josephus

With so many definitions for the word “repent” being widely accepted among Christians, it’s no  wonder that confusion reigns over the role of repentance in salvation. In Part 1 we looked at God’s repentance in the Greek Old Testament.  If the Greek words which are translated “repent” or “repentance” in the New Testament are also applied to God, then this raises the question of whether repentance always means a turn from sin, as is commonly taught.


Here’s a roadmap for this series on repentance:

Part IGod’s Repentance

Part II – Repentance in the Writings of Josephus.  <<You are here.

Part IIIWhat Does Repent Mean in Greek?  Examining Bible Dictionaries and Lexicons

Part IVThe Relationship Between Repentance and Ignorance

metanoia meaning


In fact, if we were to take an older English version of the Bible, such as the King James Bible (KJV) , the American Standard Version (ASV), or the Darby Bible, we would find that the word repent is used to describe an action of God more often than of anyone else in the entire Bible!  But, the modern versions of the Bible usually change the instances where God repents to “relent” or “change His mind.”


As we dive yet again into a deep study on the word repentance in the Bible and how it is used, I want to direct our attention to the writings of Josephus. For the uninitiated, Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote using the Greek language during the same period the New Testament was written.


josephus repentance


Why is Josephus important? If the New Testament was written in Greek in the 1st century AD, it makes sense that the recipients of the New Testament letters would have understood the word metanoeo/metanoia in the way it was used at that time in that language.  If this seems like a very obvious statement to you, it is!  Therefore, looking at how other authors around the same time used the word can be helpful.


Josephus has two primary historical works.  One is called Antiquities and the other is The Wars of the JewsAntiquities covers all of history from the time of creation up until the war which was undertaken by the Jews in 70 AD, in which their goal was to gain independence from the Roman government.


Antiquities covers a broad range of history, and runs parallel to the Bible in many instances.  In fact, Antiquities echos the Old Testament for much of its historical accounts.  It also covers some New Testament accounts and has a good deal of coverage on John the Baptist.  One quote pertains to King Herod and how he chose to deal with John the Baptist.  Many readers will already understand the historical context if they have some acquaintance with the Bible; therefore, this is a good excerpt to begin with.


“Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”


In this passage, it is suggested that if Herod allowed John to live, he may have to repent of it later, so it was best to kill him in short order instead of leaving the door open to a possible rebellion.  But of course, Herod never had to repent of keeping John alive, because he decided to have John beheaded instead.


Note here that repentance is used in a morally negative sense.  Herod might have to repent of a good thing – keeping John alive – so rather than repent of his actions of keeping Him alive, he simply killed him when the opportunity presented itself.



(There are much creepier paintings of the beheading of John the Baptist.  You should be happy I picked this one.)


For more background on the historical events in question, take the time to look at Matthew 14 or Mark 6. You’ll see a parallel account in the New Testament.


Evidence like this has caused some Bible resources, such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, to conclude that the change which occurs following repentance, “is not necessarily ethical; it may be from good to bad.”


[By the way, I’ve got a handy little Bible software program you can use for a lot of your own research.  It’s called E-Sword.  If you had to go and buy, say, the Logos Bible software program, you’d easily be paying several hundreds of dollars.  Not that these are comparable programs, but it might be the case that you don’t need the sophistication of Logos and would never use several of the features.  With E-Sword you can access all of Josephus’ works (as well as a host of others) for free.]


Here is another reference to repentance from Antiquities which I found interesting:


“And indeed that land was difficult to be traveled over, not only by armies, but by single persons. Now Moses led the Hebrews this way, that in case the Egyptians should repent and be desirous to pursue after them, they might undergo the punishment of their wickedness, and of the breach of those promises they had made to them.”


In this case, if the Eqyptians did repent, it would mean breaking their promise to let the Israelites go and chasing after them instead.   In this example, repentance is used in a morally negative sense, just as in the case of Herod’s repentance.


Now let’s move on to Josephus’ writing, The Wars of the Jews. Keep in mind that this work chronicles the revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire, which resulted in the destruction of the temple and the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Understanding this context will give you some clue as to what Josephus is referring to.  Even so, the selections I have provided are quite lengthy.  This is mainly to help you get an idea of the context and how the word is being used.




“Where is this city that was believed to have God himself inhabiting therein? It is now demolished to the very foundations, and hath nothing but that monument of it preserved, I mean the camp of those that hath destroyed it, which still dwells upon its ruins; some unfortunate old men also lie upon the ashes of the temple, and a few women are there preserved alive by the enemy, for our bitter shame and reproach. Now who is there that revolves these things in his mind, and yet is able to bear the sight of the sun, though he might live out of danger? Who is there so much his country’s enemy, or so unmanly, and so desirous of living, as not to repent that he is still alive? And I cannot but wish that we had all died before we had seen that holy city demolished by the hands of our enemies, or the foundations of our holy temple dug up after so profane a manner. But since we had a generous hope that deluded us, as if we might perhaps have been able to avenge ourselves on our enemies on that account, though it be now become vanity, and hath left us alone in this distress, let us make haste to die bravely. Let us pity ourselves, our children, and our wives while it is in our own power to show pity to them; for we were born to die, as well as those were whom we have begotten; nor is it in the power of the most happy of our race to avoid it.” – Wars of the Jews, book 6, ch.7


In this section the repentance is that the Jewish warriors are still alive, and it is suggested that it would be better to repent and decide to kill themselves.  This is made clear if one reads further, and by the statement “let us make haste to die bravely.”  Apparently in the culture at the time, it would have been dishonorable to accept defeat and be under the subject of an enemy army, so mass suicide was considered as a viable option.


“As to Josephus, his retiring to that city which he chose as the most fit for his security, put it into great fear; for the people of Tiberias did not imagine that he would have run away, unless he had entirely despaired of the success of the war. And indeed, as to that point, they were not mistaken about his opinion; for he saw whither the affairs of the Jews would tend at last, and was sensible that they had but one way of escaping, and that was by repentance.  However, although he expected that the Romans would forgive him, yet did he chose to die many times over, rather than to betray his country, and to dishonor that supreme command of the army which had been intrusted with him, or to live happily under those against whom he was sent to fight. He determined, therefore, to give an exact account of affairs to the principal men at Jerusalem by a letter, that he might not, by too much aggrandizing the power of the enemy, make them too timorous; nor, by relating that their power beneath the truth, might encourage them to stand out when they were perhaps disposed to repentance. He also sent them word, that if they thought of coming to terms, they must suddenly write him an answer; or if they resolved upon war, they must send him an army sufficient to fight the Romans. Accordingly, he wrote these things, and sent messengers immediately to carry his letter to Jerusalem.” – Wars of the Jews, book 3, ch. 7


In this section, Josephus, the commander of the Jewish army, supposes that the only way to escape (that is, to escape annihilation by the Roman army) was repentance.  He was then waiting in Tiberias until the rest of the army would be more disposed towards repentance, at which point he would then make that suggestion.  In the context of this selection, repentance is surrendering to the Roman army.  Previously the position of the Jewish army was to continue fighting against the Romans, and surrendering to them would have been a reversal of decision.  Repentance is used in this instance of altering one’s judgment and therefore one’s course of action.


Several other repentances occur in the Wars of the Jews; many of them contain some type of reversal of decision but have no religious connotation at all and are not directed toward God. The Jews consider repenting and giving themselves up to the Roman army, one faction of the Jewish army repents and returns home, and so forth. 


So what does this have to do with how repentance is used in the New Testament?  Well, it may be too early in this series to say.  Most would agree that a word’s definition is determined by how it is used, and although Josephus certainly uses repentance in a general sense of changing one’s mind, this would not necessarily mean that the New Testament always uses it in the same sense.  It could be entirely possible that repentance in the New Testament carries a special meaning when used in a Christian setting.  An example of this could be the term “born again” in contemporary evangelical circles.  Outside of these Christian circles, this term would not mean the same thing as it is within the circle, and this could be the case with repentance.


But one thing is for sure: repentance in the Septuagint or in the writings of Josephus would not add any credibility to the idea that repentance does mean a turn from sin.  In fact, in many cases of metanoia in the Koine Greek period, people repent and then sin.


We also know that a first century reader would not have automatically connected the greek words for repent/repentance – if it were used in its general, everyday sense – with turning from one’s sins or with turning to God.


Therefore, there must be some burden of proof on those that claim that repentance means to turn from sin (and turn to God) in the New Testament.  They have to provide some evidence from the New Testament that it means this.  If there is no compelling evidence, or if the evidence is ambiguous, then a reasonable person would have to conclude that the meaning in the Bible is the same meaning as that which was used in everyday language.


This sets us up well to take a look at how the word is used in the New Testament – how repentance was used by its authors and how repentance would have been understood by its recipients.


So why is repentance such an important doctrine to get right?  Repentance seems to be a crucial doctrine in relation to salvation; depending on how someone thinks about repentance will drastically change what response they think they need to make in order to get salvation.


How about you?  How have you thought about the sort of repentance God requires of you in order to be saved?  Leave a comment below…


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