Josephus, Flavius (Titus Flavius Josephus, Joseph ben Mattathias, Yoseph ben Matatyahu)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Josephus, Flavius (Titus Flavius Josephus, Joseph ben Mattathias, Yoseph ben Matatyahu)

Josephus, Flavius (Titus Flavius Josephus, Joseph ben Mattathias, Yoseph ben Matatyahu) (ca. A.D. 37-ca. 100) Jewish historian

An uprooted Jew and contemporary of the Christian epistle writer PAUL, the scholar priest Flavius Josephus provided first-century Rome with an outsider's view of imperialism. Born Joseph ben Mattathias in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, he was the son of a Hasmonian aristocrat and Mattathias ben Gurion, a priest of Jerusalem who educated Flavius Josephus in Greek and Hebrew. Around A.D. 56, Flavius Josephus joined the Pharisees, a brotherhood of ascetic separatists. Because of his priestly lineage, in A.D. 64, he served his country as a legate (emissary) in negotiations with Emperor Nero to release Jewish clerics from Roman prisons. On the way to Italy, a shipwreck in the Adriatic Sea forced him and 600 other survivors to swim to shore.

Despite Flavius Josephus's doubts that Jews could win their liberty from Rome, during the First Jewish-Roman War of A.D. 66-73, he commanded a revolutionary militia at Galilee. His mother languished in prison; both his parents and wife perished in the onslaught that annihilated tens of thousands. When General Flavius Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasian, 9-79) marched on Jotapata, west of the Sea of Galilee, Flavius Josephus and his men retreated to a cave for 47 days under a blood pact to kill themselves rather than yield to Rome. In July A.D. 67, Vespasian captured Flavius Josephus, who surrendered under the ruse of bearing a prophecy that Vespasian would become emperor. By thus currying favor with the man who was indeed a future Roman ruler, Josephus saved himself from execution for fomenting revolt. He also managed to rescue his brother Matthias and some friends and relatives from bondage. Because Flavius Josephus, like the Chechen rebel in LEO TOLSTOY'S novella Hadji Murdd (1904), chose life with conquerors over death in his homeland, Hebrews obliterated the historian's name from written and oral discourse.

Josephus's PROPHECY came true in A.D. 69 when Vespasian became emperor, earning the historian a unique place in Rome's annals. With Vespasian as his patron, Josephus became a Roman citizen. He took the name Titus Flavius Josephus, received a pension and property in Judaea, and married a captured Hebrew woman from Caesarea, who abandoned him. He interpreted Aramaic and Hebrew documents for officials and provided Vespasian with counsel on Judaism and with privileged information on Palestinian uprisings. Scorned as a turncoat and toady by his rival historian Justus of Tiberias, author of A Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews (ca. A.D. 80), Flavius Josephus was powerless to negotiate with Jewish leaders at the Roman siege of Jerusalem in summer A.D. 70 or to prevent widespread mayhem and the destruction of the temple there. He married an Alexandrian Jew and sired three sons; only Flavius Hyrcanus survived childhood. After his wife's Hellenism caused a divorce and the defection of their son, in A.D. 75, Flavius Josephus married a Cretan Jew of royal blood and raised his sons Flavius Justus and Simonides Agrippa.

Jews and Romans

After he arrived in Rome in A.D. 70, Flavius Josephus turned to history and chronicled an international conflict in the seven-volume Bellum Iudaicum (History of the Jewish War, A.D. 75). Rather than write in his native Aramaic or the Latin of his new homeland, he chose refined, literary Greek. The chronicle, released to the public in A.D. 78, portrayed the clash of ideologies, the Roman based on military might and the Hebraic on devotion to Yahweh and the Torah. In book 3, chapter 5, he describes the Romans' bivouac style and their use of portable towers for launching arrows, stones, and darts. He admires how they “live together by companies with quietness and decency, as are all their other affairs managed with good order and security” (Flavius Josephus 1960, 505). Vivid scenes of famine, epidemics, and crucifixions served as propaganda for the Romans and as a warning to subject nations that revolt against the Roman Empire was foolhardy. He portrayed himself and his followers as peacemakers and blamed Jewish military aspirations on a fanatic splinter group led by corrupt manipulators. In book 6, the author credits Vespasian with the wisdom to wait out Jewish infighting, which saved the Romans the effort of quashing the revolution by fighting “hand to hand with men that love murdering, and are mad one against another” (536). The chronicle accuses rich Jews of buying their way to safety, leaving the poor to destruction, an accusation corroborated by the DEAD SEA SCROLLS. The historian also excuses Vespasian for burning the temple in Jerusalem, an exoneration that the writer Sulpicius Severus rebutted more than three centuries later in his Historia Sacra (Sacred history, A.D. 400).

In the History of the Jewish War, book 7, chapters 8-9, Flavius Josephus describes a shocking episode in the Roman subjugation of Judaea: the defense of Masada, a tall butte in southern Israel overlooking the Dead Sea. Fleeing the procurator, Lucius Flavius Silva, in A.D. 72, Eleazar ben Yair, led Jewish refugees up two goat paths to a rock fort that Herod the Great completed as a royal retreat in 31 B.C. As Roman engineers inched their way up a rampart adjacent to a vertical slope and applied a battering ram to the walls, on April 16, A.D. 73, Eleazar delivered a heroic speech in the style of the Greek historian THUCYDIDES. As quoted by Flavius Josephus Eleazar claimed that suicide would save “our wives … before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery” (601). At his direction, the 936 Jews at Masada burned the buildings and killed themselves to cheat imperial Rome of victory. A television miniseries, Masada (1981), filmed on location, starred Peter Strauss as Eleazar, Peter O'Toole as the Roman commander Silva, and Anthony Quayle as the engineer Rubrius Gallus.

Preserving Jewish Culture

From issues of imperialism and subject nations, Flavius Josephus moved on to a broad view of Jewish history with his 21-volume Antiquitates Iudaicae (Jewish Antiquities, ca. A.D. 93). A derivative work, the text restructures Old Testament history and previous Judaic commentary into an explanation of Hebrew culture and ritual for the enlightenment of Gentile readers. Of the centrality of the temple at Jerusalem, founded by David and erected by his son Solomon, Flavius Josephus explains: “There ought also to be but one temple for one God; for likeness is the constant foundation of agreement” (631). He endorses the need for priestly supervision and for abstemious living among the devout: “And let our prayers and supplications be made humbly to God” (631). When the author died around A.D. 100, he left a brief AUTOBIOGRAPHY, The Life of Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 99), the first to survive from antiquity.

During an era of anti-Semitism promoted by the poet Juvenal, his fellow poet Martial, the rhetorician Quintilian, and the historian Tacitus, Flavius Josephus’s History of the Jewish War is significant for its introduction of Judaism and Hebrew philosophy into the Greco-Roman world and for recording the background of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion. In a critique of Roman imperialism, the historian went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Judaean war erupted from Roman misrule. Key to Flavius Josephus’s credibility are his knowledge of the Maccabaean dynasty, of the writings of the Essenes and Pharisees, and of priestly wisdom and political power. His canon expands on previous texts on the construction of temples, the geography of the Holy Lands, the reign of Herod the Great, and biographical details of Nero, Pontius Pilate, Kings Agrippa I and Agrippa II, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ contemporaries. The historian’s scholarship earned him a place in the Christian apologetics of the theologian Origen (ca. A.D. 185-ca. 254) and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. A.D. 263-339).


Feldman, Louis H., and Gohei Hata. Joseph, the Bible and History. Tokyo: Yamamoto Shoten Publishing House, 1987.

Josephus, Flavius. Josephus: Complete Works. Translated by William Whiston. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1960.