Josephus Flavius


Josephus Flavius – Josephus – lived during the first century AD. His writings are now an important source of knowledge concerning the history of Judaism and the Jews in the centuries immediately preceding and following the birth of Christ, and also concerning the topography of ancient Palestine.

His life story

Josephus (Hebr. Yosef ben Matitjahu, Lat. Flavius Iosefus) was born in 37/38 AD in Jerusalem in a high-ranking family in the Jewish priesthood. He grew up in Palestine with Aramaic as his mother tongue, but he also knew Greek. In his autobiography he writes that in 64 he went on an embassy to Rome, to secure the release of a group of imprisoned Jewish priests. On his return to Jerusalem two years later, the Jewish uprising had already started and he was sent to Galilee to lead the defence against the Romans. Following the fall of the city of Jotapata in 67 he tried to escape and hide but was captured by the Romans. To save himself he played the prophet, foretelling that both Vespasian, who conducted the war, and his son Titus would be elevated to the imperial throne. This earned him lenient treatment during his two years in captivity. At Vespasian’s command he married a Jewish girl among the captives. (He had left his first wife behind in Jerusalem.)

Later, when Vespasian became Emperor, he released Josephus and gave him his own family name of Flavius, as was the customary practice with freed slaves. Later Josephus accompanied the Emperor to Alexandria, where he remarried. When the Romans besieged Jerusalem in 69-70, Josephus was given the task of persuading the city’s Jewish population to surrender, but they regarded him as a traitor and attempted to imprison him instead. After the Roman commander Titus, Vespasian’s son, stormed and captured Jerusalem in the summer of 70, Josephus was rewarded with the grant of Roman citizenship, an annual pension and a plot of land in Judea. When Titus returned to Rome, Josephus went with him. As a token of the Emperor Vespasian’s great esteem, Josephus was permitted to live in a house which Vespasian himself had inhabited before becoming Emperor. For the rest of his life Josephus lived mainly in Rome, and in about 72/73 he married for the fourth time. He devoted himself mainly to literary activity, and he probably died in Rome soon after 100 AD.

‘History of the Jewish war’

Josephus had already begun compiling notes for his history of the Jewish war during the siege of Jerusalem. He was closely familiar with conditions on the Roman side, and Jewish deserters informed him of the situation on the other side. He wrote the book in Aramaic in 73. Between 75 and 79 AD he published a revised version in Greek, entitled Peri tou Ioudaikou polemou (‘Of the Jewish war’, Lat. Bellum Iudaicum). The Aramaic version has not survived. The text, divided into seven books, describes the prehistory and course of the Jewish uprising, from the rebellion of the Maccabees in the second century BC to soon after the end of the Jewish uprising in 70 AD. The Greek version was primarily intended for a Romano-Hellenic readership, and clearly sided against the Jewish revolutionaries. Even so, it is the best historical portrayal of the events, not least because it gives a strong impression of being an eyewitness account.

‘Antiquities of the Jews’

Between 93 and 94 Josephus published, in 20 books, his most important work, Ioudaike archaiologia (‘Jewish antiquities’, Lat. Antiquitates Iudaicorum), aimed at praising the Jewish people to the Graeco-Roman world and presenting the true nature of Judaism. He paints with a broad brush, starting with the creation of the world and ending in 66 AD, with the outbreak of the Jewish uprising against the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 AD). The first twelve books coincide with the Old Testament narrative, but they were supplemented by material from the apocryphal scriptures and oral tradition. The remaining books are based above all on the works of the Greek historians. The first book of Antiquitates Iudaicorum opens in exactly the same words as Genesis: In principio creavit deus caelum et terram [118v] (‘In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth’).

Josephus is known as the author of two more works: Pros Apiona (‘Against Apion’), an apologia directed against the enemies of the Jews, and Iosephou bios (‘The life of Josephus’), an overtly pro-Roman autobiography of a defensive kind in which the author explained his actions and opinions.

The importance of Josephus

Josephus failed to achieve the reconciliation between Judaism and the Romano-Hellenic world that he sought to engineer through his writings. The Jewish side looked on him as a traitor, and, although he was officially recognised by the Roman side he never exerted any influence. But he did make an important contribution to Christian historiography. The Christian Church considered him one of the great historians of the ancient world, and to the end of the seventeenth century he was the most-read classical author. His ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ ranked as an adjunct to the New Testament. But it was the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (‘Testimony of Flavius’), a brief passage in the eighteenth book of the ‘Antiquities’, which particularly fuelled his popularity.

The authenticity of the Testimonium has been a moot point ever since the seventeenth century, one of several arguments being that the passage is too Christian in its wording to have been written by a practising Jew. It is an interpolation, but an early one (included in all extant Greek and Latin manuscripts), mentioning John the Baptist, James the brother of Our Lord and the Passion of Christ. (171v) Josephus was therefore regarded as an important non-Christian witness of the New Testament story and was used as propagandist for the Christian faith. In addition, the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple as described in ‘The Jewish war’ was construed as divine vengeance visited upon the Jews for the Crucifixion, and the description was used against them.

Josephus translated into Latin

All of Josephus’ writings were translated from Greek into Latin in the sixth century, on the initiative of a Father of the Church, Cassiodorus (c. 485-c. 583). This opened the way for his triumphal progress throughout the Latin world. Josephus, it was felt, should be regarded in the same terms as the authors of the Church and his writings should be preserved for posterity. He was invoked, directly or indirectly, by many medieval authors, and his Antiquitates Iudaicorum and Bellum Iudaicum were assiduously copied. A very large number of manuscripts are extant, and the Codex Gigas is one of them.