Roman History: Do You Know Who Was Flavius Josephus?

Josephus - From William Whiston's translation of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.
Josephus - From William Whiston's translation of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews. Public Domain

Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian and scholar whose writing includes the History of the Jewish War  (Bellum Judaicum, 75-79 A.D.) and Antiquities of the Jews or (Antiquitates Judaicae, 93 A.D.). The latter includes references to a man named Jesus and includes an autobiographical section known as Josephus' Vita. The writings of Josephus give us an important account of first-century Judaism, Early Christianity, and life as a Roman subject.

Some historians have called Antiquities the most significant work written in the Roman Empire.

Josephus himself was a controversial figure, neither wholly embraced by Roman or Jewish societies. He took up arms against the Empire in Galilee, but surrendered in 67 A.D., joining the entourage of the Emperor Vespasian. The one-time rebel even assumed his patron’s family name, Flavius.

Early Life

Yosef ben Matityahu was born to an aristocratic priestly family in Jerusalem. In A.D. 64 Josephus was sent to Rome to try to bring back Jewish priests held as prisoners. There he met Nero's wife, Poppaea Sabina.

In the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66, Josephus was appointed military commander of Galilee (50 miles north of Jerusalem).

Josephus held the fortress at Yodfat (Jotapata) for 47 days when the future Flavian emperor Vespasian attacked. When the garrison fell, thousands of Jews were killed. The survivors made a suicide pact, but Josephus reneged.

Instead, he allowed himself to be taken prisoner and brought in chains before the general. Josephus predicted that Vespasian and his son Titus would become emperor. When his first prophecy came true, Vespasian released Josephus, who then attached himself to Vespasian's family and took the family name Flavius.

Further, Josephus argued that his revelation had shown the Roman conquest to be divine punishment for his fellow Jews, and that he was chosen by God as a prophet.

In Rome

Favored by Vespasian, Josephus was given full Roman citizenship and a pension. In A.D. 70, under Titus, Josephus attempted to intercede between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Romans, but the Jews distrusted him for his apostasy. Following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Josephus returned to Rome, where he authored all of his historical works. He married four times and fathered a number of children.

Critical Appraisal

Flavius Josephus is considered the best non-Christian near-contemporary source on Jesus. His writings provide some of the only sources apart from the Bible on such important Jewish and early Christian persons as the Maccabees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and Pharisees. Josephus mentions John the Baptist, Jesus, and Pontius Pilate, and his writings led to the discovery of the tomb of King Herod.

But Josephus was seen by Jewish authorities as a traitor and apostate for his cozening up to the Roman Empire, and for centuries his writings were forbidden to be translated into Hebrew. Among Christian scholars and the lay public, Josephus was considerably better loved; his collected works in English were hugely popular.

 

References:

  • "Some Reflections on the Romans in Judaea," by John Curran; Greece & Rome; April 2005, pp. 70-98.
  • "Chapter 14d - Judaea," The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by Edited by Alan K. Bowman, Edward Champlin, Andrew Lintott.