Titus Flavius Josephus, born Yosef ben Matityahu, was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem—then part of Roman Judea—to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry.
Josephus 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 Jewish–Roman 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 in 70 CE. Since the siege proved ineffective at stopping the Jewish revolt, the city's destruction and the looting and destruction of Herod's Temple 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, although not specifically mentioned by Josephus. Josephus' works are the chief source next to the Bible for the history and antiquity of ancient Palestine.
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 Mattiyah or Mattityahu in Hebrew. 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 of Israel Jonathan Apphus. He was raised in Jerusalem and educated alongside his brother.
In his mid twenties, he traveled to negotiate with Emperor Nero for the release of some Jewish priests. Upon his return to Jerusalem, at the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War, Josephus was appointed the military governor of Galilee. His arrival in Galilee, however, was fraught with internal division: the inhabitants of Sepphoris and Tiberias opting to maintain peace with the Romans; the people of Sepphoris enlisting the help of the Roman army to protect their city, whilst the people of Tiberias appealing to King Agrippa's forces to protect them from the insurgents. Josephus also contended with John of Gischala who had also set his sight over the control of Galilee. Like Josephus, John had amassed to himself a large band of supporters from Gischala Gush Halab and Gabara, including the support of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Josephus fortified several towns and villages in Lower Galilee, among which were Tiberias, Bersabe, Selamin, Japha, and Tarichaea, in anticipation of a Roman onslaught. In Upper Galilee, he fortified the towns of Jamnith, Seph, Mero, and Achabare, among other places. Josephus, with the Galileans under his command, managed to bring both Sepphoris and Tiberias into subjection, but was eventually forced to relinquish his hold on Sepphoris by the arrival of Roman forces under Placidus the tribune and later by Vespasian himself. Josephus first engaged the Roman army at a village called Garis, where he launched an attack against Sepphoris a second time, before being repulsed. At length, he 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 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, during which time his parents were held as hostages by Simon bar Giora.
While being confined at Yodfat Jotapata, Josephus claimed to have experienced 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". To many Jews, such claims were simply self-serving.
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 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.
Author Joseph Raymond calls Josephus "the Jewish Benedict Arnold" for betraying his own troops at Jotapata.
Scholarship and impact on history
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 sect of the Pharisees. 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. In his 1991 book, Steve Mason argued that Josephus was not a Pharisee but an orthodox Aristocrat-Priest who became associated with the philosophical school of the Pharisees as a matter of deference, and not by willing association.
Impact on history and archaeology
The works of Josephus include useful material for historians about individuals, groups, customs, and geographical places. Josephus mentions that in his day there were 240 towns and villages scattered across Upper and Lower Galilee, some of which he names. A few of the Jewish customs named by him include the practice of hanging a curtain of fine-linen at the entrance to one's house, and the Jewish custom to partake of a Sabbath-day's meal around the sixth-hour of the day at noon. He notes also that it was permissible for Jewish men to marry many wives polygamy. 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 such figures as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus found only in the Slavonic version of the Jewish War. 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 searching for 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.
Josephus's writings provide the first-known source for many stories considered as Biblical history, despite not being found in the Bible or related material. These include Ishmael as the founder of the Arabs, the connection of "Semites", "Hamites" and "Japhetites" to the classical nations of the world, and the story of the Siege of Masada.
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. Whiston claimed that certain works by Josephus had a similar style to the Epistles of St Paul.
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. Henry St. John Thackeray used Niese's version for the Loeb Classical Library edition widely used today.
The standard editio maior of the various Greek manuscripts is that of Benedictus Niese, published 1885–95. The text of Antiquities is damaged in some places. In the Life, Niese follows mainly manuscript P, but refers also to AMW and R. Henry St. John Thackeray for the Loeb Classical Library has a Greek text also mainly dependent on P. André Pelletier edited a new Greek text for his translation of Life. The ongoing Münsteraner Josephus-Ausgabe of Münster University will provide a new critical apparatus. There also exist late Old Slavonic translations of the Greek, but these contain a large number of Christian interpolations.
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 … 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, "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, The Jewish War, Jewish Wars, or History of the Jewish War commonly abbreviated JW, BJ or War
- c. 94 Antiquities of the Jews, Jewish Antiquities, or Antiquities of the Jews/Jewish Archeology frequently abbreviated AJ, AotJ or Ant. or Antiq.
- c. 97 Flavius Josephus Against Apion, Against Apion, 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 subsequent 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 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.
- date unknown Josephus's Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades spurious; adaptation of "Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe" by Hippolytus of Rome
Flavius Simonides Agrippa