September 29, 2023
September 29, 2023

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First Century CE: Biography of Josephus


Josephus is our main source for much of Jewish history in the last centuries of the Second Temple period. Who was he? Do we have to believe anything he says? I will present a short biography. Admittedly, practically all the statements below come from his own statements, which are only questionably credible. One scholar has written that his biography “must be pronounced the least trustworthy portion of his writings.”

He was born in 37 CE into a priestly family in Jerusalem. He could trace his lineage on his mother’s side to the Hasmoneans. He had an excellent memory and understanding; at age 14, the chief priests used to come to him with questions about ritual laws. At age 16, he experimented with the three main sects (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) and a fourth. At age 19, he decided to join the Pharisees. At age 27, he was sufficiently prominent to be sent to an embassy to Rome to plead for the release of some priests who had been sent there as prisoners on some slight charge. He was successful. When he returned to Jerusalem, he found that many Jews were elated at the prospect of revolt from Rome. He attempted to dissuade them, without success.

He was present in the Temple in 66 CE, when a faction of priests marked the start of the rebellion from Rome by ending the ancient custom of offering a sacrifice for the well-being of the emperor. The initial attempts by Rome to impose order were unsuccessful. In October of that year, the government of the self-declared independent Jewish state appointed him to oversee the defense of the Galilee. The Roman assault came and the end result was that in early 67 CE, the general Vespasian subdued the Jews in the Galilee.

As the Romans destroyed the city of Jotapata (Yodefat), Josephus and 40 others were able to take refuge in a deep pit. When they were discovered by the Romans and were shortly to be taken, the others wanted to kill themselves. But Josephus did not want to die and was willing to turn himself in to the Romans. The Romans had conveyed a message to him that they wanted to capture him alive. Not to punish him, but due to admiration of his valor.

He told his fellow Jews that he was willing to kill himself, but he came up with a lottery idea: “Let us leave the lot to decide the order in which we are to kill ourselves; let him who draws the first lot fall by the hand of him who comes next.” The others agreed. But at the end of this process, “by fortune or by the providence of God,” he was left alone with one other and then he convinced the other to remain alive with him. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 10:253, speculates that it was through deceit that Josephus was able to engineer that he and another were the last survivors.)

When brought before Vespasian and his son Titus, Josephus writes that “Titus, in particular, was specially touched by the fortitude of Josephus under misfortunes and by pity for his youth … His pleading with his father was the main influence in saving (my) life.” When alone with Vespasian and Titus, Josephus said: “I come to you as a messenger of greater destinies … Vespasian, you will be emperor, you and your son here.” Vespasian was not the emperor at the time, and the prediction was deeply implausible. (In very interesting passages that begin at The Jewish War III, 350, Josephus writes that he had dreams in which God had told him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns.) As a result of the prediction, Vespasian began to be impressed by Josephus. While he did not release him from custody or chains, Josephus writes that he “continued to treat him with kindness … being warmly supported by Titus in these courtesies.”

Two years later, in the summer of 69 CE, Vespasian became emperor and Josephus was released.

Vespasian entrusted Titus with the suppression of the Jewish revolt and Josephus accompanied Titus to the siege of Jerusalem. From the vantage of Roman headquarters, Josephus witnessed the siege of Jerusalem from March 70 CE until the city’s destruction in August. During the months of the siege, he made numerous attempts to persuade his former comrades to surrender, or else the city would be destroyed. But his attempts were unsuccessful. At the end, he was able to save the lives of his brother and 50 friends, and many women and children that he recognized.

After the destruction in 70 CE, Josephus went to Rome. Vespasian gave him lodging in the house which he had occupied before he became emperor. Josephus was given Roman citizenship and a pension. After Vespasian’s death, Titus and Domitian showed esteem for him as well. Scholars have noted that Josephus could have retired into a life of leisure in the Roman court and that it is much to the benefit of later generations that he chose to write books.

The “Jewish War” was written within a decade of the end of the war. Its main subject was the war between the Jews and Romans over the years 66-70 CE. But it begins with some material from Hasmonean times and ends with some material after 70 CE (e.g., the story of Masada). (Josephus was not a witness to the story of Masada; I wrote about this long ago.) The writing of the “Jewish War” was prompted—according to Josephus’ introductory remarks—by a desire to set the record straight about the war, in response to various unnamed accounts which made great errors.

As to the causes of the Jewish defeat, Josephus emphasizes divine punishment for the sins of the rebel leaders among the Jews and the wickedness of their fratricidal struggles. (Christians saw the Jewish defeat and Temple destruction as divine punishment for the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. It was Christianity, not Judaism, that preserved Josephus’ works for centuries.) The “Jewish War” and his later works were composed by Josephus in Greek. He mentions an earlier version of the “Jewish War,” in his own language—by which he, probably, means Aramaic. This has not survived.

In the 80s and 90s, he wrote “Jewish Antiquities,” a 20-book narrative covering the history of the Jews from creation down to the outbreak of the war against Rome in 66 CE. He added a biographical work, “Life,” as an appendix to this work. (But most of “Life” focuses on his career as a commander in Galilee in 66-67 CE. Life was written in response to those who accused him of misconduct in Galilee.) We learn much more about the life of Josephus from his “Jewish War,” where he writes about himself in the narratives.

His final work is “Against Apion,” which sets out to refute the contentions of ancient antisemites and to argue for Judaism’s ethical superiority over Hellenism. (Rome in the last decades of the first century CE was not a good place to be a Jew. One scholar has observed that his decision to write positively about the Jewish people in his works was, itself, an act of bravery.) In a future column, I will discuss some controversial passages in Josephus.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Like Josephus, he too has led a double life: an attorney and a Jewish history scholar.

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