Josephus Flavius

(c. 38–c. 100 AD)
   Jewish historian. The Jewish war against Roman rule in the first century AD, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, are known mainly from the works of a remarkable chronicler who had himself been both an actor and a spectator in these dramatic events.
   Joseph the son of Mattathias, who later took the Roman name of Josephus Flavius, was born in Jerusalem. His father was a member of one of the priestly orders connected with the Temple. His mother’s family claimed kinship with the royal Hasmonean dynasty that had ceased to rule Judea seventy years earlier. From an early age, Joseph and his brother Matthias were educated for the priesthood. He afterwards boasted that he had dazzled his elders with his youthful erudition. That may have been immodest, but no doubt he soon showed intellectual gifts. He acquired a knowledge of Greek, in addition to Hebrew and the kindred tongue of Aramaic which was the colloquial language of the region. As a youth of sixteen, he seems to have fallen under the influence of Bannus, one of the many desert ascetics akin to the sect of the Essenes, and remained with him for three years. He then returned to Jerusalem and served for some years as a priest, though leaning towards the religious party of the Pharisees. Being articulate and persuasive, and knowing Greek, Josephus was sent to Rome at the age of twenty-six on a special mission. Some Jewish priests had been arrested by the tough Roman procurator Felix, and Josephus had to intercede on their behalf with the imperial authorities. On the way, he was ship-wrecked and had to swim all night to safety. In Rome, he was befriended by Aliturius, a well- known actor of Jewish descent, who arranged for the young Jerusalemite to be received by Empress Poppaea Sabina. With her help, the Jewish priests were released. His stay in Rome, the glittering capital of a great world power, made a lasting impression on Josephus’ mind, and influenced his later actions. Josephus returned in 65 to a Judea seething with discontent against its Roman masters, after decades of a heavy-handed colonial regime, insensitive to Jewish religious and national sentiments. Armed revolt flared up, and in Jerusalem the Roman garrison was wiped out. The legate for Syria, Cestius Gallus, marched in with two legions in the autumn of 66, but the force was ambushed and routed by the Jewish partisans.
   In Jerusalem, there had been moderates trying to head off a military confrontation with the imperial might. But after the initial successes, the war party was in control, and the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious council, acted as a kind of war cabinet in preparing for the struggle for independence. The country was divided into seven districts, and Josephus was sent to take charge of the Galilee. Whatever had induced it, the appointment was hardly an apt one. The Galilee highlanders had always been hardy, independent, and difficult to rule. The local clan leaders evidently resented being placed under command of an envoy from Jerusalem, who was a priest not yet thirty years old, and with no grasp of the guerrilla warfare at which they were adept. Moreover, to judge by his own subsequent account, he lacked conviction about the outcome of a challenge to Rome, and may have seemed half-hearted and over-cautious to the militant Galileans. Their leading figure was JOHN OF GISCALA (in Hebrew Gush Halav), a mountain town in northern Galilee. There was great friction between the two men, and at one stage John tried unsuccessfully to get Josephus removed by the Sanhedrin. Josephus in his historical writings, calls John a ‘rogue, liar and thief.
   In the summer of 67, the Roman military machine started to assert itself against the insurrection in the small but chronically troublesome Judean province. A leading general, VESPASIAN, arrived at the head of a large expeditionary force, and proceeded steadily and systematically to subdue the countryside. His son Titus came up from Egypt in command of two legions, and was sent to operate in the Galilee. Its defenders were neither united nor prepared for a serious campaign. Under the direction of Josephus, some of the hill towns had been fortified and supplies stored. But the legionaries took these towns one after another, until Josephus and the remnant of his forces were penned up in the fortress of Jotapata. When it was taken by assault six weeks later, Josephus and forty of his men took refuge in a cave. Since their cause was lost, they decided to draw lots for killing each other. In the end, Josephus managed to stay alive with one other, whom he persuaded to surrender with him to the Romans. As the rebel commander in the Galilee, Josephus was an important prisoner of war. He was kept alive and taken in chains to Vespasian’s headquarters in Caesarea - presumably, so that he might be carried off to Rome with other captives for a traditional triumph after a victorious campaign.
   However, Josephus soon found ways of gaining favour with his captors. News was received in 68 that Emperor Nero had died. Soon after, his successor Galba was assassinated. A movement started among Vespasian’s troops to promote his claim to the imperial throne. Josephus seized the chance to encourage this aspiration. Purporting to have powers of divining the future, he promised a successful outcome, quoting (or rather misquoting) the messianic belief that the master of the world would come out of Judea. Flattered and impressed by these predictions, Vespasian released him, and from then on Josephus remained identified with the Roman side. From then on also, he was regarded by his own people as a defector and a quisling.
   Vespasian proclaimed himself emperor in Alexandria and hurried back to Rome, leaving Titus to finish the Judean campaign. Only Jerusalem still held out. A year later, on the ninth day of Av, after a long siege in which the tenacious defenders suffered cruel privations, the city finally fell. It was sacked, the inhabitants butchered and the Temple destroyed. Josephus had accompanied Titus, and from the Roman lines observed and recorded the calamity that ended Jewish independence for nineteen centuries. His masters treated him well. Now thirty-three years old, he was granted Roman citizenship, allowed to settle in Rome, allotted a pension at the court, and encouraged to write a history of the Jewish war. He never returned to his native land, but remained in Rome for the next thirty-odd years, dying some time after
   Josephus’ family life appears to have been unsatisfactory. He married four times. His first wife died; the second left him; the third, who bore him three children (only the son survived), he divorced; and the fourth, a well-born lady from Crete, bore him two sons - Justus and Simonides Agrypa.
   The Writings of Josephus
   During the second part of his life in Rome, Josephus devoted himself mainly to writing. He produced two major historical works, The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. In his later years he published a life of himself and Against Apion, a defence of the Jewish people.
   The Jewish War contains a detailed account of the 66–73 rebellion in which he had been personally involved. The first part of the work is an historical introduction, starting from an earlier Jewish revolt, that of the Maccabees against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphines in the second century BC. It was originally written in his mother tongue, Aramaic, and therefore meant for his own people. The general tenor of the work is to justify the conduct of the Romans, to whom Josephus had gone over during the war; and to condemn the extremist elements among the Jews, whom he held accountable for the national disaster. This Aramaic version has not survived. However, Josephus was encouraged by Vespasian and Titus to write, a Greek version which appeared about 77, under what were practically official auspices. The reason is not far to seek, since Josephus paints a flattering picture of the Roman direction of this long and bloody campaign. The work is divided into seven books. The Greek is of a high standard, and since Josephus himself says that he had not fully mastered the language, he must have had assistants for the style and syntax. Having exonerated the victorious power of Rome, Josephus now applied himself to presenting the history of the Jewish people in a comprehensive and positive way. He may have been impelled to do this by the anti-Jewish bias and the ignorance about the Jewish past and faith which he encountered in the Roman capital. In 93 he published Jewish Antiquities, a monumental Greek work in twenty books. The first half is a summary of the Old Testament with additional stories and legends woven into it. This part was probably based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible produced in Alexandria from the third century BC. The rest of the Antiquities covers the Hasmonean and Herodian periods. The Antiquities concludes with the arrival in Judea in AD 66 of the infamous procurator, Gessius Florus, whose actions ‘necessitated us to take up arms against the Romans’.
   At the end of the Antiquities Josephus writes that, ‘It will not be perhaps an invidious thing if I treat briefly of my own family, and of the actions of my own life, while there are still living such as can either prove what I say to be false, or can attest that it is true…’ Soon after, therefore, there appeared the autobiographical work The Life of Josephus Flavius. Its main purpose was to justify himself against criticism by fellow-Jews for his part in the defence of the Galilee in the early stages of insurrection, and for his defection to the Romans. He was particularly stung by the attack on him by another Judean historian of the time, JUSTUS OF TIBERIAS.
   Josephus’ last work was a defence of the Jews against the smears of a Greek- Egyptian historian in Alexandria called Apion. Apion had not only written crude anti-Semitic attacks - including the story that the Jewish religion required the ritual drinking of gentile blood - but had also incited the rabble to violence against their Jewish fellow-citizens. He was an early prototype of the pseudo-academic anti-Semitic writers in 19-century Europe who provided the intellectual framework for Nazism. Josephus must have been in the same dilemma as latter- day Jews: whether to answer or to ignore anti-Semites. Josephus had curiously little to say about the emergence in his own lifetime of a new faith, Christianity, derived from a Jewish sect in Judea. He was born a decade after the death of JESUS, and he came to reside in Rome about three years after PAUL of Tarsus had been executed there. By then, Christianity had spread through the empire, largely through the missionary journeys of Paul. But there was no reason why Josephus should have paid special attention to these events, which were only later to become of world importance. A variety of religious sects and movements came and went at the time, and they were outside his area of interest. There is a passing reference to the slaying of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas; and another to the trial and execution in AD 62 of James, the brother of Jesus.
   One disputed passage purports to refer to Jesus and has been given great importance in Christian writings as corroborating the Gospels from a contemporary Jewish source. The passage refers to ‘a very able man, if man is the right word; for he was a worker of miracles, a teacher of those who were glad to hear the truth, and he won over many Jews and gentiles. This man was Christ; and when at the prompting of our leading men, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, his original adherents remained faithful; for two days later they saw him alive again…and the group called Christians after him is not extinct even now’. Some scholars have maintained that this passage was not written by Josephus (at least not in the present form) but was inserted afterwards or revised later by someone else. It is relevant to point out that there are no extant copies of Josephus’ writings in Greek that are earlier than the 10 century, though there are Latin versions from the 4 century.
   The reliability of Josephus as a historian is subject to serious reservations. His account of the Jewish War is not the work of a detached and impartial scholar but an apologia for his Roman patrons and himself. For earlier Jewish history he was dependent on such sources as were available to him. Regarding HEROD THE GREAT, for instance, he relied a good deal on Nicholas of Damascus, a non- Jewish historian who was Herod’s adviser and chronicler. But whatever their bias or inadequacies, the works of Josephus are of enormous historical value. They are the major record, and often the only one, for a crucial and dramatic period of Judean history.
   When not writing about his own doings or attacking his opponents, Josephus is accepted today as a trust-worthy reporter of matters that came within his personal knowledge. In the Jewish revolt, he started out as a combatant and became in effect a war correspondent with the Roman forces. He kept regular notes and diaries from which he drew later. In Rome he also had access to the official archives, including the despatches and campaign reports of Vespasian and Titus. Many of the documents and writings cited by Josephus have been lost, apart from his use of them.
   As a historian, Josephus had the advantage of being familiar with the physical setting of the events he recounted. His descriptions of places and buildings are detailed and precise. For example, his factual references to the topography and structures of the Masada fortress have been substantially confirmed by the work of the Israel archaeologist Professor Yigael YADIN. In his book on the Masada dig, Yadin quotes from the American missionary, S.W.Wolcott, who visited the locality in the 1840s. Wolcott wrote that ‘this remarkable spot may now with advantage be thought of as bearing out those statements and those descriptions which we find in The Jewish War…in few instances where topographical identity is in question, have modern researchers better sustained the testimony of an ancient writer…it is manifest that Josephus must personally and at leisure have made himself acquainted with this spot’.
   Another Israel archaeologist, Professor Binyamin Mazar, has found Josephus an accurate guide in the current excavations round the south and south-western sides of Herod’s wall to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Jewish War is not only essential history, it is also a literary masterpiece. The narrative is lucid and gripping. Regardless of the author’s political views, there is no attempt to gloss over the horror and suffering of a bloody colonial war. The accounts of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, and the last stand of the Zealots on Masada, are vivid and deeply moving. They were written not by Josephus the Roman pensioner but by Josephus the Jew, recording the death of his nation.
   Allowing for the element of bias, there must have been a painful degree of truth in his account of the feuds and factions that weakened the Jewish side in the revolt. At times the title The Jewish War seems an ironical reference to the conflicts within the Jewish camp, even with the enemy at the gate. The best-known English translation of Josephus is that of the Reverend William Whiston published in 1737 and entitled The Works of Flavius Josephus, The Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian and Celebrated Warrior. Whiston succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, and was later dismissed from his post for his unorthodox theological views. The language of his translation is ponderous, and simpler modern translations have recently become available.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • JOSEPHUS FLAVIUS — (c. 37–after 100 C.E.), Jewish historian and one of the chief representatives of Jewish Hellenistic literature. BIOGRAPHY Early Life Born in Jerusalem into an aristocratic priestly family belonging to the mishmeret of Jehoiarib, through his… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Josephus Flavius — Josephus Flavius,   eigentlich Joseph ben Mathitjạhu, jüdischer Geschichtsschreiber, * Jerusalem 37/38 n. Chr., ✝ Rom um 100; schloss sich nach anfänglicher Gegnerschaft im jüdischen Krieg dem Flavier Vespasian an und erwarb dessen Gunst durch… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Josephus, Flavius — • Jewish historian, born A.D. 37, at Jerusalem; died about 101 Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006 …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Josephus Flavius — Büste von Flavius Josephus Flavius Josephus (* 37 oder 38 als Joseph ben Mathitjahu ha Kohen, hebräisch: יוסף בן מתתיהו , in Jerusalem, † nach 100 vermutlich in Rom) war ein jüdischer Historiker des 1. Jahrhunderts, der seine Werke, die später… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Josephus, Flavius — orig. Joseph Ben Matthias born AD 37/38, Jerusalem died с 100, Rome Jewish priest, scholar, and historian. Born of a priestly family, Josephus joined the Pharisees. While on a diplomatic mission he was impressed by the culture and sophistication… …   Universalium

  • Josephus, Flavius — Jewish historian who lived from about 37 to 100 CE; during the rebellion against Rome he was commander of the forces in Galilee but was taken prisoner. He became the interpreter for Vespasian during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and afterwards… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • Josephus,Flavius — Jo·se·phus (jō sēʹfəs), Flavius. A.D. 37 100?. Jewish general and historian who took part in the Jewish revolt against the Romans. His History of the Jewish War is the major source of information about the siege of Masada (72 73). * * * …   Universalium

  • JOSEPHUS, FLAVIUS —    Jewish historian, born at Jerusalem, of royal and priestly lineage; was a man of eminent ability and scholarly accomplishments, distinguished no less for his judgment than his learning; gained favour at Rome; was present with Titus at the… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • JOSEPHUS, Flavius — (37 100)    JEWISH historian whose writings are our chief source of information about first century JUDAISM …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Josephus Flavius — (AD 37 100?, born as Joseph Ben Matthias) Jewish historian and military man who participated in the Jewish rebellion against Rome, author of History of the Jewish War …   English contemporary dictionary

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