Josephus (Jerusalem, ca. 37-38 AD – Rome, about 100 AD) was a Roman religious, writer, historian, politician and military from Jewish origin, and of priestly caste. It is very important to study his writings as it remains today the first historical source that reports in detail the events that occurred in the Holy Land in the first decades after Jesus‘ death through books of great historical-political-religious importance (among which the famous “Antiquity of the Jews “).
Titus Flavius Josephus (Greek: Φλάβιος Ἰώσηπος; 37 – c. 100), born Yosef ben Matityahu (Hebrew: יוסף בן מתתיהו, Yosef ben Matityahu; Greek: Ἰώσηπος Ματθίου παῖς), was a first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, historian, prophet, soldier and hagiographer, who was born in Jerusalem to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry.
He initially fought against the Romans during the First Jewish–Roman War as head of Jewish forces in Galilee, until surrendering in 67 CE to Roman forces led by Vespasian after the six-week siege of Jotapata. Josephus claimed the Jewish Messianic prophecies that initiated the First Roman-Jewish War made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave and presumably interpreter. After Vespasian became Emperor in 69 CE, he granted Josephus his freedom, at which time Josephus assumed the emperor’s family name of Flavius.
Flavius Josephus fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship. He became an advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus, serving as his translator when Titus led the Siege of Jerusalem. Since the siege proved ineffective at stopping the Jewish revolt, the city’s destruction and the looting and destruction of the Temple (the Second Temple) soon followed.
Josephus recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the first century CE and the First Jewish–Roman War (66-70 CE), including the Siege of Masada. His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94). The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation. Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Greek and Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into first century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity. (See main article Josephus on Jesus).
Born into one of Jerusalem’s elite families, Josephus introduces himself in Greek as Iōsēpos (Ιώσηπος), son of Matthias, an ethnic Jewish priest. He was the second-born son of Matthias. His older full-blooded brother was also called Matthias. Their mother was an aristocratic woman who descended from the royal and formerly ruling Hasmonean dynasty. Josephus’s paternal grandparents were Josephus and his wife—an unnamed Hebrew noblewoman, distant relatives of each other and direct descendants of Simon Psellus. Josephus’s family was wealthy. He descended through his father from the priestly order of the Jehoiarib, which was the first of the 24 orders of priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus was a descendant of the high priest Jonathon. He was raised in Jerusalem and educated alongside his brother.
In his early twenties, he traveled to negotiate with Emperor Nero for the release of 12 Jewish priests. Upon his return to Jerusalem, at the outbreak of the First Jewish-Roman War, Josephus was appointed the military governor of Galilee, but eventually he strove with John of Gischala over the control of Galilee, who like Josephus, had amassed to himself a large band of supporters from Gischala (Gush Halab) and Gabara, including the support of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Josephus fortified several towns and villages in Galilee, among which were Tiberias, Bersabe and Tarichaea, in anticipation of a Roman onslaught, and valiantly resisted the Roman army in its siege of Yodfat (Jotapata) until it fell to the Roman army in the lunar month of Tammuz, in the thirteenth year of Nero’s reign.
After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat fell under siege, the Romans invaded, killing thousands; the survivors committed suicide. According to Josephus, he was trapped in a cave with 40 of his companions in July 67 CE. The Romans (commanded by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both subsequently Roman emperors) asked the group to surrender, but they refused. Josephus suggested a method of collective suicide; they drew lots and killed each other, one by one, counting to every third person. Two men were left (this method as a mathematical problem is referred to as the Josephus problem, or Roman roulette), who surrendered to the Roman forces and became prisoners. In 69 CE, Josephus was released. According to his account, he acted as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, in which his parents and first wife died.
While being confined at Yodfat (Jotapata), Josephus reveals his experienced with a Divine revelation that later led to his speech predicting Vespasian would become emperor. After the prediction came true, he was released by Vespasian, who considered his gift of prophecy to be Divine. Josephus wrote that his revelation had taught him three things: that GOD, the creator of the Jewish people, had decided to “punish” them; that “fortune” had been given to the Romans; and that GOD had chosen him “to announce the things that are to come”.
In 71 CE, he went to Rome in the entourage of Titus, becoming a Roman citizen and client of the ruling Flavian dynasty (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus). In addition to Roman citizenship, he was granted accommodation in conquered Judaea and a pension. While in Rome and under Flavian patronage, Josephus wrote all of his known works. Although he uses “Josephus”, he appears to have taken the Roman praenomen Titus and nomen Flavius from his patrons.
Vespasian arranged for Josephus to marry a captured Jewish woman, whom he later divorced. About 71 CE, Josephus married an Alexandrian Jewish woman as his third wife. They had three sons, of whom only Flavius Hyrcanus survived childhood. Josephus later divorced his third wife. Around 75 CE, he married his fourth wife, a Greek Jewish woman from Crete, who was a member of a distinguished family. They had a happy married life and two sons, Flavius Justus and Flavius Simonides Agrippa.
Josephus’s life story remains ambiguous. He was described by Harris in 1985 as a law-observant Jew who believed in the compatibility of Judaism and Graeco-Roman thought, commonly referred to as Hellenistic Judaism. Before the 19th century, the scholar Nitsa Ben-Ari notes that his work was shunned like that of converts, then banned as those of a traitor, whose work was not to be studied or translated into Hebrew. His critics were never satisfied as to why he failed to commit suicide in Galilee, and after his capture, accepted the patronage of Romans.
The historian E. Mary Smallwood writes critically of Josephus:
[Josephus] was conceited, not only about his own learning, but also about the opinions held of him as commander both by the Galileans and by the Romans; he was guilty of shocking duplicity at Jotapata, saving himself by sacrifice of his companions; he was too naive to see how he stood condemned out of his own mouth for his conduct, and yet no words were too harsh when he was blackening his opponents; and after landing, however involuntarily, in the Roman camp, he turned his captivity to his own advantage, and benefited for the rest of his days from his change of side.
The works of Josephus provide crucial information about the First Jewish-Roman War and also represent important literary source material for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and late Temple Judaism.
Josephan scholarship in the 19th and early 20th centuries took an interest in Josephus’s relationship to the congregation of the Pharisees. It consistently portrayed him as a member of that sect and as a traitor to the Jewish nation—a view which became known as the classical concept of Josephus. In the mid-20th century a new generation of scholars challenged this view and formulated the modern concept of Josephus. They consider him a Pharisee but restore his reputation in part as patriot and a historian of some standing.
The works of Josephus include useful material for historians about individuals, groups, customs, and geographical places. Some of these, such as the city of Seron, receive no mention in the surviving texts of any other ancient authority. His writings provide a significant, extra-Biblical account of the post-Exilic period of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, and the rise of Herod the Great. He describes the Sadducees, Jewish High Priests of the time, Pharisees and Essenes, the Herodian Temple, Quirinius’ census and the Zealots, and to such figures as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and to Jesus. Josephus represents an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism and the context of early Christianity.
A careful reading of Josephus’s writings and years of excavation allowed Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, to discover what he considered to be the location of Herod’s Tomb, after a search of 35 years. It was above aqueducts and pools, at a flattened desert site, halfway up the hill to the Herodium, 12 km south of Jerusalem—as described in Josephus’s writings. In October 2013, archaeologists Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas challenged the identification of the tomb as that of Herod. According to Patrich and Arubas, the tomb is too modest to be Herod’s and has several unlikely features. Roi Porat, who replaced Netzer as excavation leader after the latter’s death, stood by the identification.
Manuscripts, textual criticism, and editions
For many years, the works of Josephus were largely known in Europe only in an imperfect Latin translation from the original Greek. Only in 1544 did a version of the standard Greek text become available in French, edited by the Dutch humanist Arnoldus Arlenius. The first English translation, by Thomas Lodge, appeared in 1602, with subsequent editions appearing throughout the 17th century. The 1544 Greek edition formed the basis of the 1732 English translation by William Whiston, which achieved enormous popularity in the English-speaking world. It was often the book—after the Bible—that Christians most frequently owned. A cross-reference apparatus for Whiston’s version of Josephus and the biblical canon also exists.
Scholars debate about Josephus’s intended audience. For example, Antiquities of the Jews could be written for Jews—”a few scholars from Laqueur onward have suggested that Josephus must have written primarily for fellow-Jews (if also secondarily for Gentiles). The most common motive suggested is repentance: in later life he felt so badly about the traitorous War that he needed to demonstrate … his loyalty to Jewish history, law and culture.” However, Josephus’s “countless incidental remarks explaining basic Judean language, customs and laws … assume a Gentile audience. He does not expect his first hearers to know anything about the laws or Judean origins.” The issue of who would read this multi-volume work is unresolved. Other possible motives for writing Antiquities could be to dispel the misrepresentation of Jewish origins or as an apologetic to Greek cities of the Diaspora in order to protect Jews and to Roman authorities to garner their support for the Jews facing persecution. Neither motive explains why the proposed Gentile audience would read this large body of material.
Historiography and Josephus
In the Preface to Jewish Wars, Josephus criticizes historians who misrepresent the events of the Jewish–Roman War, writing that “they have a mind to demonstrate the greatness of the Romans, while they still diminish and lessen the actions of the Jews.” Josephus states that his intention is to correct this method but that he “will not go to the other extreme … [and] will prosecute the actions of both parties with accuracy.” Josephus suggests his method will not be wholly objective by saying he will be unable to contain his lamentations in transcribing these events; to illustrate this will have little effect on his historiography, Josephus suggests, “But if any one be inflexible in his censures of me, let him attribute the facts themselves to the historical part, and the lamentations to the writer himself only.”
His preface to Antiquities offers his opinion early on, saying, “Upon the whole, a man that will peruse this history, may principally learn from it, that all events succeed well, even to an incredible degree, and the reward of felicity is proposed by GOD.” After inserting this attitude, Josephus contradicts himself: “I shall accurately describe what is contained in our records, in the order of time that belongs to them … without adding any thing to what is therein contained, or taking away any thing therefrom.” He notes the difference between history and philosophy by saying, “[T]hose that read my book may wonder how it comes to pass, that my discourse, which promises an account of laws and historical facts, contains so much of philosophy.”
In both works, Josephus emphasizes that accuracy is crucial to historiography. Louis H. Feldman notes that in Wars, Josephus commits himself to critical historiography, but in Antiquities, Josephus shifts to rhetorical historiography, which was the norm of his time. Feldman notes further that it is significant that Josephus called his later work “Antiquities” (literally, archaeology) rather than history; in the Hellenistic period, archaeology meant either “history from the origins or archaic history.” Thus, his title implies a Jewish peoples’ history from their origins until the time he wrote. This distinction is significant to Feldman, because “in ancient times, historians were expected to write in chronological order,” while “antiquarians wrote in a systematic order, proceeding topically and logically” and included all relevant material for their subject. Antiquarians moved beyond political history to include institutions and religious and private life. Josephus does offer this wider perspective in Antiquities.
To compare his historiography with another ancient historian, consider Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Feldman lists these similarities: “Dionysius in praising Rome and Josephus in praising Jews adopt same pattern; both often moralize and psychologize and stress piety and role of divine providence; and the parallels between … Dionysius’s account of deaths of Aeneas and Romulus and Josephus’s description of the death of Moses are striking.”
The works of Josephus are major sources of our understanding of Jewish life and history during the first century.
- (c. 75) War of the Jews, or The Jewish War, or Jewish Wars, or History of the Jewish War (commonly abbreviated JW, BJ or War)
- (c. 94) Antiquities of the Jews, or Jewish Antiquities, or Antiquities of the Jews/Jewish Archeology (frequently abbreviated AJ, AotJ or Ant. or Antiq.)
- (c. 97) Flavius Josephus Against Apion, or Against Apion, or Contra Apionem, or Against the Greeks, on the antiquity of the Jewish people (usually abbreviated CA)
- (c. 99) The Life of Flavius Josephus, or Autobiography of Flavius Josephus (abbreviated Life or Vita)
The Jewish War
His first work in Rome was an account of the Jewish War, addressed to certain “upper barbarians”—usually thought to be the Jewish community in Mesopotamia—in his “paternal tongue” (War I.3), arguably the Western Aramaic language. In 78 CE he finished a seven-volume account in Greek known as the Jewish War (Latin Bellum Judaicum or De Bello Judaico). It starts with the period of the Maccabees and concludes with accounts of the fall of Jerusalem, and the succeeding fall of the fortresses of Herodion, Macharont and Masada and the Roman victory celebrations in Rome, the mopping-up operations, Roman military operations elsewhere in the empire and the uprising in Cyrene. Together with the account in his Life of some of the same events, it also provides the reader with an overview of Josephus’s own part in the events since his return to Jerusalem from a brief visit to Rome in the early 60s (Life 13–17).
In the wake of the suppression of the Jewish revolt, Josephus would have witnessed the marches of Titus’s triumphant legions leading their Jewish captives, and carrying treasures from the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem. It was against this background that Josephus wrote his War, claiming to be countering anti-Judean accounts. He disputes the claim that the Jews served a defeated God and were naturally hostile to Roman civilization. Rather, he blames the Jewish War on what he calls “unrepresentative and over-zealous fanatics” among the Jews, who led the masses away from their traditional aristocratic leaders (like himself), with disastrous results. Josephus also blames some of the Roman governors of Judea, representing them as corrupt and incompetent administrators. According to Josephus, the traditional Jew was, should be, and can be a loyal and peace-loving citizen. Jews can, and historically have, accepted Rome’s hegemony precisely because their faith declares that God himself gives empires their power.
The next work by Josephus is his twenty-one volume Antiquities of the Jews, completed during the last year of the reign of the Emperor Flavius Domitian, around 93 or 94 CE. In expounding Jewish history, law and custom, he is entering into many philosophical debates current in Rome at that time. Again he offers an apologia for the antiquity and universal significance of the Jewish people. Josephus claims to be writing this history because he “saw that others perverted the truth of those actions in their writings,” those writings being the history of the Jews. In terms of some of his sources for the project, Josephus says that he drew from and “interpreted out of the Hebrew Scriptures” and that he was an eyewitness to the wars between the Jews and the Romans, which were earlier recounted in Jewish Wars.
He outlines Jewish history beginning with the creation, as passed down through Jewish historical tradition. Abraham taught science to the Egyptians, who, in turn, taught the Greeks. Moses set up a senatorial priestly aristocracy, which, like that of Rome, resisted monarchy. The great figures of the Tanakh are presented as ideal philosopher-leaders. He includes an autobiographical appendix defending his conduct at the end of the war when he cooperated with the Roman forces.
Louis H. Feldman outlines the difference between calling this work Antiquities of the Jews instead of History of the Jews. Although Josephus says that he describes the events contained in Antiquities “in the order of time that belongs to them,” Feldman argues that Josephus “aimed to organize [his] material systematically rather than chronologically” and had a scope that “ranged far beyond mere political history to political institutions, religious and private life.”
Josephus’s Against Apion is a two-volume defence of Judaism as classical religion and philosophy, stressing its antiquity, as opposed to what Josephus claimed was the relatively more recent tradition of the Greeks. Some anti-Judaic allegations ascribed by Josephus to the Greek writer Apion, and myths accredited to Manetho are also addressed.