Josephus Flavius

Josephus Flavius (ca. 37-100) was a Jewish historian, diplomat, and military leader, and the sole source of information concerning numerous events in the final centuries of the Jewish state.

According to his own account, Josephus was born to an aristocratic, priestly family in Jerusalem. He was well educated in Judaism and in the Greek disciplines. At the age of 16 he became interested in the principal Jewish sects of his time and lived 3 years in the wilderness with a hermit, probably an Essene. At 19 Josephus became a Pharisee. At 26 he went on a mission to Rome and succeeded in securing the release from prison of several Judean priests. He came home impressed with the grandeur and might of Rome, only to find that the Jewish revolt had started.

Josephus was appointed governor of Galilee with responsibility for its defense. After his defeat at Jotapata, he escaped but later surrendered to the Romans. They treated him well, largely because his prediction that Vespasian would become emperor came true (69). Formerly known as Joseph ben Mattathias, Josephus took the Emperor's family name, Flavius. He was an eyewitness to the siege and fall of Jerusalem, after which he returned to Rome, where Vespasian granted him Roman citizenship and a pension. Subsequently, Josephus devoted himself to writing.

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His Writings

Only four of Josephus's works are extant. His earliest volume, The Jewish Wars, probably written in his native Aramaic, was lost. It was apparently intended to discourage the Babylonian Jews and other peoples from joining in the Parthian War against Rome. Its present Greek version (79), consisting of seven books, fixes responsibility for the uprising against Rome solely on the Zealots. Josephus takes occasion to praise his patrons, Vespasian and Titus, and indicates that Titus did not order the Temple burned.

Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews (ca. 93), in 20 volumes, outlines the history of the Jews from creation to the revolt. Its laudation of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James is deemed to be a 3d-century interpolation by a Christian. Josephus also refers to the conversion to Judaism of the royal family of Adiabne in the 1st century B.C. His autobiographic Vita, or "Life" (ca. 93-100), was originally appended to the second edition of the Antiquities. In a section of this work Josephus attempts to refute the charge of disloyalty lodged against him, especially by the rival Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias (ca. 65).

There are numerous discrepancies in the accounts between the Wars and the Antiquities. These works, however, are a principal source of information about the Jewish sects: the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Josephus's history also sets the stage for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the excavations at Masada, the site of the last Jewish stand (73). The latter archeological findings proved the accuracy of Josephus's description.

In Against Apion (ca. 93), Josephus refutes the malicious anti-Jewish slanders circulated by Apion and others. He defends and extols the Mosaic law and Jewish ethics. Josephus's writings are generally apologetic in nature. The Talmud, however, ignores him. His works were preserved by the medieval Church, chiefly for the references to Christianity and also because they deal with the early Christian period.

Further Reading on Josephus Flavius

The writings of Josephus were translated into English by Henry St. John Thackeray and Ralph Marcus in the Loeb Classical Library (1926-1958). A splendid study of Josephus is in G.A. Williamson, The World of Josephus (1964). Thackeray's Josephus: The Man and the Historian (1929) is excellent. The life and works of Josephus are also treated in Norman Bentwich, Josephus (1914). Yigael Yadin, Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (trans. 1966), is a beautifully illustrated account of the archeological discoveries at Masada.

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Additional Biography Sources

Bentwich, Norman De Mattos, Josephus, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Hadas-Lebel, Mireille, Flavius Josephus: eyewitness to Rome's first-century conquest of Judea, New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.