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    • Josephus - Wikipedia [View Study]
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    • Introduction Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome [View Study]
    • Flavius Josephus' Account of the Anti-Roman Riots Preceding the 66-70 War, and its Relevance for the Reconstruction of Jewish Eschatology during the First Century A.D.[View Study]

    Who Was Josephus Flavius?

    Josephus Flavius (in Hebrew יוסף בן מתתיהו) (c. 37-100 AD) was a Jewish historian and soldier, born in Jerusalem. Survived and recorded the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans. Josephus' historical works are an important source for the study of early Judaism (immediate post-Temple period) and early Christianity. Among others Josephus offers information about Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and a disputed reference to Jesus.


    Josephus, who introduced himself in Greek as "Iosepos, son of Matthias, an ethnic Hebrew, a priest from Jerusalem" (Jewish War I.3), fought the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 as a Jewish military leader in Galilee. After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat was taken under siege, the Romans invaded, killed thousands, and the remaining survivors who had managed to elude the forces committed suicide. However, in circumstances that are somewhat unclear, Josephus and one of his soldiers surrendered to the Roman forces invading Galilee in July 67. He became a prisoner and provided the Romans with intelligence on the ongoing revolt. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both subsequently Roman emperors. In 69, Josephus was released and according to Josephus's own account, he appears to have played some role as a negotiator with the defenders in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70.

    In 71, he arrived in Rome in the entourage of Titus, becoming a Roman citizen and Flavian dynasty client (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus - see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was granted accommodation in conquered Judea, and a decent, if not extravagant, pension. It was while in Rome, and under Flavian patronage, that Josephus wrote all of his known works.

    Although he only ever calls himself "Josephus", he appears to have taken the Roman nomen Flavius and praenomen Titus from his patrons. This was standard for new citizens.

    Josephus's first wife perished together with his parents in Jerusalem during the siege and Vespasian arranged for him to marry a Jewish girl who had been captured by the Romans. This girl left Josephus, and around 70, he married a Jewish woman from Alexandria by whom he had three male children. Only one, Flavius Hyrcanus, survived childhood. Josephus later divorced his third wife and around 75, married his fourth wife, a Jewish girl from Crete, from a distinguished family. This last marriage produced two sons, Flavius Justus and Simonides Agrippa.

    Josephus's life is beset with ambiguity. For his critics, he never satisfactorily explained his actions during the Jewish war — why he failed to commit suicide in Galilee in 67 with some of his compatriots, and why, after his capture, he cooperated with the Roman invaders. Historian E. Mary Smallwood wrote:

      (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 benefitted for the rest of his days from his change of side.[1].

    However, his critics ignore the fact that Simon Bar Giora and John of Giscala, both extreme zealots and great opponents of Josephus, who stayed in Jerusalem and led the war against Rome in its final stage, in a moment of truth, preferred life over suicide and humbly surrendered to the Romans. At any rate, those who have viewed Josephus as a traitor and informer have questioned his credibility as a historian — dismissing his works as Roman propaganda or as a personal apologetic, aimed at rehabilitating his reputation in history. Most Rabbinical commentators, however, have found him to be an upright Jew. For example his orthodoxy and piety are concluded to be "beyond doubt" by the Jewish Encyclopedia.

    Nevertheless, he was unquestionably an important apologist in the Roman world for the Jewish people and culture, particularly at a time of conflict and tension. He always remained, in his own eyes, a loyal and law-observant Jew. He went out of his way both to commend Judaism to educated gentiles, and to insist on its compatibility with cultured Graeco-Roman thought. He constantly contended for the antiquity of Jewish culture, presenting its people as civilised, devout and philosophical.

    Eusebius reports that a statue of Josephus was erected in Rome.[2]


    The works of Josephus provide crucial information about the First Jewish-Roman War. They are also important literary source material for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and post-Second Temple Judaism. Josephan scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century became focused on Josephus' relationship to the sect of the Pharisees. He was consistently portrayed as a member of the sect, but nevertheless viewed as a villainous traitor to his own nation - a view which became known as the classical concept of Josephus. In the mid 20th century, this view was challenged by a new generation of scholars who formulated the modern concept of Josephus, still considering him a Pharisee but restoring his reputation in part as patriot and a historian of some standing. Recent scholarship since 1990 has sought to move scholarly perceptions forward by demonstrating that Josephus was not a Pharisee but an orthodox Aristocrat-Priest who became part of the Temple establishment as a matter of deference and not willing association.

    Josephus offers information about individuals, groups, customs and geographical places. 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 makes references to 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 a disputed reference to Jesus. He is an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism (and, thus, the context of early Christianity).


    For many years, the works of Josephus were printed only in an imperfect Latin translation. It was only in 1544 that a version of the Greek text was made available, edited by the Dutch humanist Arnoldus Arlenius. This edition formed the basis of the 1732 English translation by William Whiston which was enormously popular in the English speaking world. Later editions of the Greek text include that of Benedikt Niese, who made a detailed examination of all the available manuscripts, mainly from France and Spain. This was the version used by H. St J. Thackeray for the Loeb Classical Library edition widely used today.

    List of Works

    • (c. 75) War of the Jews, or Jewish War, or Jewish Wars, or History of the Jewish War (commonly abbreviated JW, BJ or War)
    • (c. 75) Josephus's Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades
    • (c. 94) Antiquities of the Jews, or Jewish Antiquities, or Antiquities of the Jews/Jewish Archeology, or Antiquities (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

    This book was written in Greek. It starts with the period of the Maccabees and the capture of Jerusalem by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 164 BC and concludes with accounts of the falls of Jerusalem (70 AD) and Masada (73 AD), the Roman victory celebrations in Rome, the mopping-up operations, Roman military operations elsewhere in the Empire and the uprising in Cyrene. It also provides the reader with an overview of Josephus' own part in the events since his return to Jerusalem from a brief visit to Rome in the early 60s (Life 13-17).

    The book was written about 75, originally in Josephus's "paternal tongue", probably Aramaic, though this version has not survived. It was later translated into Greek, probably under the supervision of Josephus himself.

    Although Josephus' account is one of the only sources of knowledge that we have of this war (The Talmud in gittin has an account of the war, too) , the neutrality and integrity behind this writing must be questioned. Josephus was a Jew captured by the Romans and it was under the command of the Roman emperor that this account of The Jewish War was written. Within it, without actually making accusations the Jews are portrayed as weak and unorganized.

    Although often dismissed as pro-Roman propaganda (perhaps hardly surprising given where his patronage was coming from), he claims to be writing to counter anti-Judean accounts. He disputes the claim that the Jews serve a defeated god and are 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 natural aristocratic leaders (like him), with disastrous results. He also blames some of the governors of Judea, but these he presents as atypical Romans: corrupt and incompetent administrators. Thus, 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 of their faith that God himself gives empires their power.

    The most blatant possibility of bias in the account is Josephus' implication that the Jews were the cause of the war. According to his narrative the last remaining sons of the Maccabees were fighting for the throne and to solve their quarrel, they invited the Romans in. The two brothers then let the Romans basically take over the command, which the Romans happily accepted. The Romans then put the weaker brother in power and controlled a sort of puppet regime. It was then Roman taxes which inspired the Jewish "nationalists" (if nationalism was a relevant concept in ancient times), or zealots, to rebel and start the war.

    Jewish Antiquities

    The next literary work by Josephus is his twenty-one volume Antiquities of the Jews, completed in the last year of the emperor Flavius Domitian (c. 93-94 AD). He claims that interested persons have pressed him to give a fuller account of the Jewish culture and constitution. Here, 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.

    Beginning with the story of Creation, he outlines Jewish history. 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 biblical stories are presented as ideal philosopher-leaders. There is again an autobiographical appendix defending Josephus' own conduct at the end of the war when he cooperated with the Roman forces.

    Against Apion

    Josephus' Against Apion is a final two-volume defence of Judaism as classical religion and philosophy, stressing its antiquity against what Josephus claimed was the relatively more recent traditions of the Greeks. Some anti-Judean allegations ascribed by Josephus to the Greek writer Apion, and myths accredited to Manetho (an ancient Egyptian historian and priest, ca. 3rd century BC) are also exposed.


    1. Josephus, Flavius, The Jewish War, tr. G.A. Williamson, introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. New York, Penguin, 1981, p. 24
    2. Hist. eccl. 3.9.2

    Further Reading

    • The Josephus Trilogy, a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger
    • Flavius Josephus Eyewitness to Rome's first-century conquest of Judea, Mireille Hadas-lebel , Macmillan 1993, Simon and Schuster 2001
    • The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged New Updated Edition Translated by William Whiston, A.M., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987. ISBN 0-913573-86-8 (Hardcover). ISBN 1-56563-167-6 (Paperback).
    • Per Bilde. Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: his Life, his Works and their Importance. Sheffield, 1998.
    • Shaye J.D. Cohen. "Josephus in Galilee and Rome. His Vita and development as a historian." Columbia Studies in the Classical tradition 8 (1979 Leiden).
    • Louis Feldman. "Flavius Josephus revisited. The man, his writings, and his significance." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 21.2 (1984).


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    Last updated: June 2013
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