Josephus Flavius

Josephus Flavius both participated in and wrote the history of the Jewish interaction with Rome.

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Josephus Flavius wrote a history called the Jewish War Against the Romans (JW), the massive Antiquities of the Jews (AJ), which retells Jewish history from its origins up until the war, an autobiography (Life), and a theological defense of Judaism called Against Apion (AA). Josephus played a major role in the first Jewish revolt, and thus, both JW and Life—though on many points contradicting each other or having markedly different perspectives--are fascinating (if self-aggrandizing) resources for retelling his life story. As a historian, his writings are both entertaining and of questionable objectivity--inasmuch as he is also a key player in the story he tells.

Josephus the Prodigy

According to his autobiography, Joseph ben Mattityahu was born in Jerusalem in 3Josephus Flavius7-38 C.E. into an aristocratic, priestly family; his great-grandfather on his mother's side was the Hasmonean high priest Jonathan. He describes himself as a child prodigy, capable, at age 14, of clarifying details of the law to the leading priests of the city.   

Josephus then relates his study of the different Jewish schools of thought (the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees), his period of discipleship in the wilderness, and his decision to become a Pharisee (Life 11-12).

At the age of twenty-six, Josephus went to Rome and successfully advocated before Nero for the release of some priests who had been arrested and sent to Rome on what he describes as an insignificant charge. Upon returning from Rome, Josephus became aware of popular hostility against the misrule of the Roman procurator Florus; he claims that he tried to suppress the revolutionaries (Life 17), but eventually, pretended to concur with them out of fear for his personal safety (22).

Josephus the General

In JW, Josephus describes a period of irresponsible revolution, which brought the entire nation unwillingly into war against the Romans. These initial conflicts culminated in the defeat of the Roman legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus. He then describes how the moderate Jerusalem leadership took control of the revolt and appointed generals with similarly moderate views; Josephus was himself appointed the military governor of the Galilee in the militarily strategic north of Israel.

According to JW's narrative, Josephus served as an outstanding and ingenious general. Throughout, Josephus describes himself as a daring, inventive, and beloved leader. He even claims that when the Roman general Vespasian found out that Josephus had slipped into the besieged town of Jotapata, the general regarded it as a great piece of luck since "the most able of his enemies had put himself into a noose" (JW 3.143). Josephus describes with abundant self-admiration his clever defense of Jotapata, including pouring boiling oil on the soldiers and boiled fenugreek on the Roman gangplanks to make the soldiers slip.

Josephus the "Prophet"

When the Romans captured Jotapata in July of 67, Josephus "helped by divine providence," escaped to a cave with 40 others. JW describes the exact fulfillment of his prediction that Jotapata would fall on the 47th day of the siege and his dreams of the coming calamities facing the Jews and the fortune of the Romans. The other occupants of the cave committed themselves to die free and threatened Josephus, who was considering surrender.

Josephus convinced the others to participate in a suicide lottery where each person would kill the next. Providentially, Josephus and one other were the last to draw lots, and Josephus convinced him to join him in surrendering to the Romans. Upon arriving in Vespasian's camp, Josephus prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor.

Josephus remained in Roman custody for the next two years until his prophecy came true and Vespasian was acclaimed emperor (June 69). At that point, Vespasian released Josephus from his chains, and Titus was put in charge of the siege of Jerusalem. Again, Josephus took on the mantle of the prophet, imagining himself as Jeremiah, counseling the besieged occupants of Jerusalem to submit to the great power:

"When the king of Babylon laid siege to this city, and King Zedekiah--ignoring Jeremiah's prophecies--nevertheless gave battle, Jeremiah was taken prisoner and saw the city and the Temple destroyed. But Zedekiah was moderate compared to your leaders! Jeremiah shouted out that God hated their sinful behavior against Him, and would be taken captive unless they surrendered. But neither the king nor the people put Jeremiah to death. But you! … When I plead with you to save yourselves, you hurl insults and stones at me. You are furious at being reminded of your crimes which you commit day after day!" (JW 3.391-393).

Needless to say, Josephus' calls for surrender were not heeded, and, in August, 70 C.E., Jerusalem fell.

Josephus the Historian

Titus brought Josephus to Rome, where he lived the remainder of his life. Vespasian granted Josephus Roman citizenship and provided him with a pension and a large estate in Judea. During the reign of Titus, Josephus composed the JW, which begins with the war against Antiochus Epiphanes and concludes with the fall of Jerusalem (book 6) and its aftermath (book 7).

JW was written under imperial sponsorship, and so it is not surprising that blame for the tragic destruction of Jerusalem is deflected from the Romans. Instead, responsibility is placed upon progressively worse Roman administration of Judea, which encouraged a small group of reckless Jewish revolutionaries and did not quell the simmering ethnic tensions.

The 20 volume Antiquities of the Jews (AJ) retells all of Jewish history until the year 66 C.E., but also maintains a structural focus on Jerusalem, whose destruction in 586 concludes book 10, and whose destruction in 70 C.E. is predicted in book 20. AJ, which was probably written under Domitian in the 90s, presents a defense of Judaism, attesting to the antiquity, wisdom, and purity of Jewish tradition.

Some historians see AJ, as well as Josephus' last book, Against Apion, as reflecting a heightened religious sensibility. For example, Josephus' occasionally describes the Pharisees with a degree of adulation absent from JW, and his standard for piety has become more law-centered and less Temple-centered (as it was in JW).

Josephus' Life was primarily written as a response to a history of the war written by Justus of Tiberias. Based on the arguments that Josephus makes, Justus apparently accused Josephus of causing rebellion against Rome in Tiberias, and of having behaved like a brutal, greedy tyrant. Hence, Life begins with Josephus' outstanding pedigree and his scholarly credentials and continues to attempt to refute Justus' claims.

Can We Trust Josephus?

A history in which one of the main historical characters is actually the author is rather strange, and raises the question of whether the historian is overemphasizing or distorting his own role. From a literary perspective, beginning JW well before his own arrival on the scene allows Josephus an opportunity to establish his reliability as an historian.

Josephus' accounts leave some questions unanswered. After the defeat of Cestius Gallus, why did the zealots hand power over to the moderates, and how did someone who claims he was against the war get appointed to the most important military position? Josephus' own answer (at least in Life) was that he had already demonstrated his tremendous ability, and had been recognized from an early age by the leadeJosephus Flavius' bookrship of Jerusalem.

Some scholars, however, conclude that Josephus was actively anti-Roman; certainly his actions in Galilee demonstrate that he took his military task seriously. Only later did he say that he had always been against war with Rome. Thus, the historian's retelling defends not only the Romans (only a few bad procurators) and the Jewish people (only a few radicals), but also himself (who did his duty, but recognized that "fortune had gone over to the Romans.")

Other scholars have identified changes in perspective from the earlier JW to the later works like AJ and Life. For example, AJ consistently presents the Pharisees as having the greatest influence with the Jewish populous. This, coupled with Josephus' own claim that he was a Pharisee in Life and the change in religious sensibility noted above have led some scholars to conclude that his support for Pharisaism developed during the 90s C.E.

They correlate this with the Judean political situation of that period when, they assume the rabbinic movement under Rabban Gamaliel began to gain influence. This argument, while reasonable, is based on a variety of unproven assumptions. Nevertheless, Josephus' claim to have lived most of his adult life as a Pharisee is probably suspect.

No historian can write a truly objective account; how much the more so when the author of the history is also its subject. Certainly, Josephus' various works reflect not only his personal bias but also his concern to defend the reputation of his Roman patrons (in JW) and of the Jewish people (in AJ and AA). Josephus’ accounts certainly provide a more entertaining read than some of the more "objective" modern histories that retell their own, sober versions of Josephus' narrative. Although wading through Josephus' bias is a challenge, it is precisely his vanity and his self-righteousness that makes his histories such fun.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.