A Roman portrait bust said to be of
(AD 37 – c. 100), also known as
Yosef Ben Matityahu
(Joseph, son of Matthias) and,
after he became a Roman citizen
as Titus Flavius Josephus
, was a first-century
of priestly and royal ancestry
who survived and recorded the destruction of Jerusalem
in AD 70.
His works give an important insight into first-century Judaism
Josephus was 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.
reports that a statue of Josephus
was erected in Rome.
Josephus's two most important works are The Jewish War
(c. 75) and
Antiquities of the
(c. 94). The Jewish War
recounts the Jewish
revolt against Rome (66–70). Antiquities of the Jews
recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective. These
works provide valuable insight into first century Judaism and the
background of early Christianity.
who introduced himself in Greek as
"Iosepos (Ιώσηπος), son of Matthias, an ethnic Jew, a priest from Jerusalem", fought the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 as a
Jewish military leader in Galilee.
Jewish garrison of Yodfat was taken
under siege, the Romans invaded, killing thousands; the survivors
According to Josephus, however, in circumstances that are somewhat
unclear, Josephus found himself trapped in a cave with forty of his
companions. The Romans asked him to surrender once they discovered
where he was, but his companions refused to allow this. He
therefore suggested a method of collective suicide: they draw lots
and killed each other, one by one, counting to every third person.
The sole survivor of this process was Josephus (this method as a
mathematical problem is referred to as the Josephus problem
, or Roman
) Josephus and one of his soldiers then surrendered
to the Roman forces invading Galilee in July 67 and became
prisoners. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian
and his son Titus
both subsequently Roman emperors
69, Josephus was released (cf. War
according to Josephus's own account, he appears to have played a
role as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem
In 71, he arrived in Rome in the entourage of Titus, becoming a
Roman citizen and client of the ruling Flavian
(hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus —
see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was
granted accommodation in conquered Judaea, 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 praenomen
Flavius from his patrons. This was
standard practice for 'new' Roman citizens.
Josephus's first wife perished, together with his parents, in
Jerusalem during the siege and Vespasian
arranged for him to marry a Jewish woman who had been captured.
left Josephus, and around 70, he married a Jewish woman from
Alexandria by whom he had three male children.
one, Flavius Hyrcanus, survived childhood. Josephus later divorced
his third wife and around 75, married his fourth wife, a Jewish
woman from Crete, member of a distinguished family. This last
marriage produced two sons, Flavius Justus and Flavius Simonides
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 accepted patronage from
Historian E. Mary Smallwood
(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.
However, those who did not forgive Josephus for not committing
suicide failed to provide a reasonable explanation as to why the
two leaders of the Jewish zealots, namely, John of Giscala
and Simon Bar Giora
, preferred Roman captivity,
and quietly rejected taking their own life. Did they approve of
Josephus' credibility as a historian has been questioned — his
works are usually dismissed as Roman propaganda or as a personal or
, aimed at
rehabilitating his reputation in history. More recently,
commentators have reassessed previously-held views of Josephus. As
Reason dictates we should hate this man.
But it's hard to get angry at Josephus.
What, after all, did he do?
A few soldiers were tricked into suicide.
Some demoralizing claptrap was shouted at a beleaguered
A wife was distressed... all of which pale by
comparison to what the good men did.
For it was the loyal, the idealistic and the brave who
did the real damage.
The devout and patriotic leaders of Jerusalem
sacrificed tens of thousands of lives to the cause of
Vespasian and Titus sacrificed tens of thousands or
more to the cause of civil order.
Even Agrippa II, the Roman
client king of Judea who did all he could to prevent the war, ended
by supervising the destruction of half a dozen of his cities and
the sale of their inhabitants into slavery.
How much better for everyone if all the principal
figures of the region had been slithering filth like
Significance to scholarship
The works of Josephus provide crucial information about the First
Jewish-Roman War and are also important literary source material
for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls
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. Scholarship post-1990
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 (cf. Steve Mason 1991).
Josephus includes information about individuals, groups, customs
and geographical places. Some of these, such as the city of
, are not referenced in the surviving
texts of any other ancient authority. His writings provide a
significant, extra-Biblical account of the post-Exilic period of
, the Hasmonean
dynasty, and the rise of Herod the Great
. He makes references to the
, Jewish High Priests
of the time, Pharisees and Essenes
, the Herodian
' census and the
, and to such figures as Pontius Pilate
, Herod the Great
, Agrippa I
, John the Baptist
James the brother of Jesus
, and a pair of disputed
references to Jesus
. He is an
important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism
and the context of early Christianity
reading of Josephus' writings allowed Ehud
Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, to discover
the location of Herod's Tomb, after a search of 35 years — above
aqueducts and pools, at a flattened, desert site, halfway up the
hill to the Herodium, 12
kilometers south of Jerusalem — exactly where it should have been,
according to Josephus's writings.
For many years, the works of Josephus were printed only in an
imperfect Latin translation from the original Greek. It was only in
1544 that a version of the Greek text was made available, edited by
the Dutch humanist Arnoldus
. The first English translation, by Thomas Lodge
, appeared in 1602, with subsequent
editions appearing throughout the 17th century. However, the 1544
Greek edition formed the basis of the 1732 English translation by
enormous popularity in the English speaking world (and which is
currently available online for free download by Project Gutenberg
). Later editions of the
Greek text include that of Benedikt
, 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
A 1640 edition of the works of
Josephus translated by Thomas Lodge which originally appeared in
- (c. 75) War of the
Jews, or The Jewish
War, or Jewish Wars,
or History of the Jewish
War (commonly abbreviated JW, BJ or
- (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)
- (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
- (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
. He then wrote a
seven-volume account in Greek
to us as the Jewish
(Latin Bellum Judaicum
with the period of the Maccabees and
concludes with accounts of the fall of Jerusalem, 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'
own part in the events since his return to Jerusalem from a brief
visit to Rome in the early 60s (Life
Rome cannot have been an easy place for a Jew to live, in the wake
of the suppression of the Jewish revolt. Josephus would have
witnessed the marches of Titus' triumphant
legions leading their Jewish captives, and carrying treasures from
the despoiled Temple in
He would have experienced the popular
presentation of the Jews as a bellicose and xenophobic
It was against this background that Josephus wrote his
, and although this work has often been dismissed as
pro-Roman propaganda (hardly a surprising view, given the source of
his patronage), he claims to be writing to counter 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
" 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, but these he represents as
atypical: 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 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
(between 1.9.93 and 14.3.94, cf.
AJ X.267). 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 creation according to Genesis
he outlines Jewish history. Abraham
to the Egyptians
, who in turn taught the Greeks
set up a
senatorial priestly aristocracy, which, like that of Rome, resisted
monarchy. The great figures of the Bible
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.
Josephus' Against Apion
two-volume defence of Judaism as classical religion
stressing its antiquity, as opposed to what Josephus claimed was
the relatively more recent tradition of the Greeks. Some
anti-Judean allegations ascribed by Josephus to the Greek writer
, and myths accredited to Manetho
are also addressed.
Literature about Josephus
- The Josephus Trilogy, a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger
- Der jüdische Krieg (Josephus), 1932
- Die Söhne (The Jews of Rome), 1935
- Der Tag wird kommen (The day will come,
Josephus and the Emperor), 1942
- Flavius Josephus Eyewitness to Rome's first-century
conquest of Judea, Mireille Hadas-lebel, Macmillan 1993, Simon
and Schuster 2001
- "The 2000 Year Old Middle East Policy Expert", a chapter from
Give War A Chance by P.
- 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).
- O'Rourke, P.J. Give War a Chance. Vintage, 1993.
- 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
- Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees (1991
- Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, 10 vols.
in 12 (Leiden, 2000–).
- Plagnieux, P. 'Les sculptures Romanes' Dossiers d'Archéologie
(January 2001) pg 15
- Josephus refers to himself in his Greek works as Ἰώσηπος
:Iōsēpos Matthiou pais (Josephus the son of Matthais).
Although Josephus also spoke Aramaic and most probably also
no extant sources record his name in these languages. However, his
Hebrew/Aramaic name has gone down in Jewish history as יוסף
בן מתתיהו (Yosef ben Matityahu) and thus
he is commonly known in Israel today.
- See also Jerusalem’s
Model in the Late 2nd Temple Period
- Ecclesiastical History
- Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the
Bible, (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1985).
- Jewish War I.3
- Cf. this example, Roman Roulette.
- Attested by the third century Church theologian Origen
(Comm. Matt. 10.17).
- Josephus, Flavius, The Jewish War, tr. G.A.
Williamson, introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. New York, Penguin,
1981, p. 24
- O'Rourke 104.
- O'Rourke, P.J. Give War a Chance. Vintage, 1993.