Josephus on the Origin of the State

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Flavius Josephus
also known as Yosef Ben Matityahu, was a Jewish historian in the
first-century A.D. He witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem in
A.D. 70 and recorded the events. His two major works are The
Jewish War
and The
Antiquities of the Jews
. The first tells the story of the
Jewish revolt against the Romans from A.D. 66 to 70. The second
is a history of the world from a Jewish perspective. Both are extraordinarily
important for studying the history of the first-century and the
history of the Jewish nation. For the modern Christian, Josephus
illuminates the world of first-century Christianity.

In The Antiquities,
Josephus mentions that the first human government was built by Nimrod,
the mighty hunter from Genesis 10:8–9. This appears to be consistent
with Genesis; no other organized government (unless you count a
“clan”) is mentioned before his. Genesis is, first and foremost,
a book of origins, and thus this original human government can arguably
be taken as archetypal. Josephus, while not being authoritative
like Scripture, extends the Babel story (Genesis 11:1–9) and provides
an interesting insight regarding the origin of the state. The following
extended quote is from Book 1, Chapter 4 of the Whiston translation.
The selection reads a bit funny (Whiston translated Josephus in
the 18th century), but stick with it and I’ll summarize afterwards.

The Tower Of Babylon, And The Confusion Of Tongues.”

  1. When they
    flourished with a numerous youth, God admonished them again to
    send out colonies; but they, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed
    was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their
    own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they
    were in, did not obey him. Nay, they added to this their disobedience
    to the Divine will, the suspicion that they were therefore ordered
    to send out separate colonies, that, being divided asunder, they
    might the more easily be Oppressed [by God].
  2. Now it
    was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of
    God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man,
    and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe
    [their success] to God, as if it was through his means
    they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage
    which procured that happiness.
    He also gradually changed the
    government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from
    the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence
    on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he
    should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would
    build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and
    that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!
  3. Now the
    multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod,
    and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they
    built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree
    negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands
    employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than any one could expect;
    but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built,
    that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less
    than it really was. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together
    with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit
    water. When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve
    to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the
    destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among
    them, by producing in them divers languages, and causing that,
    through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able
    to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower
    is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language
    which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by
    the word Babel, confusion. The Sibyl
    also makes mention of this tower, and of the confusion of the
    language, when she says thus: “When all men were of one language,
    some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend
    up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the
    tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this
    reason it was that the city was called Babylon.” But as to the
    plan of Shinar, in the country of Babylonia, Hestiaeus mentions
    it, when he says thus: “Such of the priests as were saved, took
    the sacred vessels of Jupiter Enyalius, and came to Shinar of

the story here begins shortly after the flood. The people have congregated
together for mutual benefit and trade. God then commands them to
begin again in the task of spreading over the face of the earth
– starting colonies. But instead, the people once again rebelled
against God, even believing that this command to spread was given
so that God could “oppress” them again. Nimrod, the first
human king, was the individual most responsible for inciting this
rebellion. They conspired to build a tower that, according to Genesis,
would reach to the heavens and symbolize their ability to be gods
themselves. Josephus indicates that they believed they could even
attack heaven and avenge themselves against God for causing the
great flood. God, to punish but not destroy them, sent confusion
by causing them to speak different languages. They scattered (partly
fulfilling God’s plan to spread humankind), and on the plains of
Shinar the kingdom of Babylon was built. (Remember that Babylon
is consistently referenced in the Bible as an abomination.)

As much as
Josephus can be relied upon as a source, his account emphasizes
four points:

  1. The origin
    of human government is rebellion against God.
  2. The government
    sets itself up specifically in opposition to the rule of God.
  3. The rulers
    exalt themselves while deceiving the people.
  4. Human government
    drives a wedge between people, pitting them against each other.*

The incident
brings to mind the words of Paul in the book of Romans:

“For although
they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks
to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts
were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…”

~ Romans

The state,
which is the institutionalization of violence on earth, began as
a usurpation of God’s authority; the true kingdom of God is not
of this world (John 18:36). Let us not think that government
can be “fixed” and the kingdom of God advanced by simply
getting the right people in office, for we know that power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely
. It’s been that way since
the beginning.

* Incidentally,
even Ludwig von Mises in Liberalism
admitted that language is one of the fundamental ways nations are

invites you to comment on this article at

24, 2009

Norman Horn
[send him mail]
is a graduate student in Chemical Engineering at the University
of Texas at Austin and studies theology at the Austin Graduate School
of Theology. He can frequently be found writing on his blog,,
which focuses on the intersections of liberty and the Christian

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