Flavius Josephus

JOSEPHUS, FLAVIUS jō’ se fəs, flā’ viəs (born Joseph ben Matthias). Jewish historian.


Josephus was born in Jerusalem, a.d. 37 or 38. His father was a priest, his mother a descendant of the royal house of the Asmoneans. When he grew up he became a Pharisee, which sect he likened to the Stoics among the Greeks. In a.d. 64 at age twenty-six he went to Rome and secured the release of certain priests who were being held there on rather nebulous charges. Upon his return he found the people smarting under the highhanded administration of the procurator Florus and ready for revolt. From this he attempted to dissuade them, having seen at firsthand something of Rom. power. Because of his attitude he was sent to Galilee to keep the peace there. The accounts of his activity in this region are conflicting and confused. The Jewish War seems to indicate that he was sent up as a general to take command of the situation; while the Life says he went up as a priest to pacify the disaffected. At any rate, because he was afraid that his pacification efforts would bring him under suspicion of favoring Rome, he finally pretended to concur with the views of the war party, going so far as to get them paid as mercenaries, but at the same time trying to persuade them to act on the defensive: not to attack the Romans, but let them make the first move. Thus he played a kind of double game, waiting to see the direction in which events would develop, accused by some of pro-Rom. sentiment, by others of aiming at tyranny. Finally the extremists forced him to a decision; either he would lose his post, or take over the active leadership of the war party. At this juncture the Rom. general Vespasian arrived on the scene (a.d. 67), and Josephus was captured, after almost being killed by his companions. When Vespasian was summoned to Rome in 69, and his son Titus was left to conduct the seige of Jerusalem, Josephus was used by the Rom. commander as a mediator, going around the walls counseli ng the Jews to submit, hated by the zealots and suspected by the Romans. After the capture of Jerusalem he went to Rome with Titus, and was shown great favor by Vespasian, by now emperor, by Titus, and later by Domitian. He received Rom. citizenship and took the name Flavius in deference to his patrons. He was married three times; one wife deserted him, and a second marriage ended in divorce. He died at about the beginning of the second cent.


Three major works have come from the pen of Josephus. (a) The Jewish War, written between 75 and 79, in seven books. This account of the struggle between the Jews and Romans was written under Rom. auspices, Titus having urged Josephus to undertake the work. King Agrippa vouched for its accuracy. It was produced first in an Aram. vs., now lost, and this was followed by the Gr. edition. One purpose for the writing of the book was certainly to deter others from revolting against the Romans as the Jews had done. The work is in the main a trustworthy account, for Josephus had firsthand materials: his own experience, and the commentaries of Vespasian and Titus, the commanders involved in the struggle. (b) Antiquities of the Jews, written in 93 or 94. This is a long work of twenty books, beginning with creation and extending to the outbreak of the war with the Romans. Nothing like it was ever attempted before; it represents a new departure in literary form. The first part of the work, to the end of the exile, follows closely the Biblical narrative; the second part, postexilic, is compiled from miscellaneous sources. To the Antiquities is appended a biographical sketch (Life) written by Josephus as a defense against the accusations of a rival historian named Justus. (c) Against Apion, a defense of the Jewish religion.

Importance of Josephus.

He is the principal source for Jewish history between 100 b.c. and a.d. 100, and is invaluable for a knowledge of the geography of Bible lands. Recent archeological discoveries at Qumran and Masada have indicated that the account of Josephus is remarkably accurate and ranks him high as a topographer. The student of the NT has in Josephus a wealth of material on agriculture, industry, religion, politics, and the outstanding personalities of Gospel history: Herod, Pilate, the two Agrippas, Felix, and others. As a historian many have distrusted him, mostly because they disapprove of him as a traitor. He is no more affected by human error (of memory, faulty sources, bias, and the like) than others of his time. The passage concerning Jesus (Antiquities, XVIII, 63ff.) has been regarded by some as a Christian interpolation; but the bulk of evidence, both external and internal, marks it as genuine. Josephus must have known the main facts about the life and death of Jesus, and his historian’s curiosity certainly would lead him to investigate the movement which was gaining adherents even in high circles. Arnold Toynbee rates him among the five greatest Hellenic historians, along with Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius.

Josephus was doubtless an egoist, motivated by self-interest, and a flatterer of the Romans. He was hated by his countrymen as a turncoat. Yet he possessed a high degree of patriotism, for instead of disowning his nation he wrote an elaborate history of it, and composed a brilliant apology for his native religion.


H. St. John Thackery, Josephus: the Man and the Historian (1929); W. R. Farmer, ed., in Introduction to the Torchbook Edition of The Great Roman-Jewish War (1960).