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Flavius Josephus

Roman portrait bust, said to be of Flavius Josephus. From Les Dossiers d' Archéologie (2001).
Roman portrait bust, said to be
of Flavius Josephus (from Les Dossiers d' Archéologie, 2001; ©!!!)
In the war between the Jews and the Romans of 66-70, the Jewish general Joseph son of Matthias defended Galilee against the Roman legions. After he had been defeated, he defected to his enemies, and advised the Roman general Vespasian. When the latter became emperor, his adviser started a career as a historian who tried to explain Judaism to the Greeks and Romans. His most important works are the Jewish War, the Jewish Antiquities, an Autobiography and an apology of Judaism called Against the Greeks (or Against Apion). As Roman citizen, he accepted a new name: Flavius Josephus. He must have died about 100, more than sixty years old.


Joseph was born in Jerusalem in 37 CE as the son of Matthias, a man from priestly descent, and a mother who claimed royal blood. Stated differently, he was born as a Sadducee and an aristocrat. The boy must have been a real know-it-all, because he excelled in all his studies and at the age of sixteen, he decided to find out for himself what philosophy was best - that of the Sadducees, that of the Essenes or that of the Pharisees. Although he studied all three systems, he was not content, and for three years, he lived in the desert with a hermit named Bannus. Returning to Jerusalem at the age of nineteen, he choose to become a Pharisee.
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Jewish War
Jewish Antiquities
Against the Greeks
Jotapata. Photo Elvira Maor.

At least, this is what he writes in his Autobiography. The problem is that it can not be true. To become an Essene, one had to study three years and we may assume that one did not understand the essentials of the teachings of other Jewish sects within a few weeks either. It was simply impossible to study the three disciplines and live three years in the desert before one's nineteenth year. Worse, the Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities show a profound dislike of the Pharisees. Hence, we may conclude that Josephus only says that he became a Pharisee because he knew from where the wind was blowing, and Phariseism was very popular at the moment he was writing his Autobiography.

In 64, he went to Rome to negotiate the release of several priests held hostage by the emperor Nero. It was an adventurous voyage including shipwreck. When he and the priests returned home, he discovered that his country was on the brink of a revolt against the tactless Roman governor Gessius Florus. In his autobiography (discussed below), Joseph claims that he was a moderate. It did not prevent him from joining the revolutionaries when the rebels, belonging to the nationalist groups called Zealots and Sicarians, had annihilated the Roman garrison at Jerusalem. The Temple authorities sent Joseph to Galilee and ordered him to organize the resistance to the approaching Roman legions, which were commanded by Vespasian.

He was not the only military leader in Galilee. A man named John of Gischala had organized a private militia of peasants. The two commanders lost more time quarreling with each other: after all, there were great social differences between the two armies. As a result, they failed to seize the strategically important city of Sepphoris, which was the first aim of the Roman offensive.

In the spring of 67, Joseph's men were under siege in the town of Jotapata -which controlled the road to Sepphoris- and after some fighting, it became clear that they had to surrender to Vespasian's fifteenth legion. The author of the Jewish War tells a strange story about the fate of the defenders. They hid in a cave, decided to draw lots to choose the man  who was to kill the others and himself. We are to believe that it was pure luck or divine interference that enabled Joseph to win this sinister lottery. Instead of committing suicide, he surrendered to the Romans. (Jewish War 3.383-398)

Whatever the truth of this implausible story, Josephus was brought before Vespasian and his son Titus. To Vespasian, he explained about an ambiguous oracle that said that

a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.
[Numbers 24.17-19]
Almost every Jew believed that this prophecy referred to the coming of the Messiah. However, who said that the ruler who was to rise out of Israel was to be a Jew? Why should Vespasian not become king or emperor? Ridiculous though this may seem to a modern reader, Vespasian was impressed. After all, in Gaul and Hispania an insurrection had started against the emperor Nero, and it was clear to any intelligent observer that civil war was bound to break out. Besides, everybody had observed the comet, resembling a sword, that had stood over the country during the preceding months (Jewish War, 6.289; an earlier comet is referred to by Tacitus, Annals, 15.47). Instead of having Joseph crucified, the Roman general kept him in detention. The former Jewish commander became friends with Titus, who was of the same age.

Nero committed suicide in June 68; he was succeeded by Galba, who was lynched in January 69. Two men tried to become emperor: Vitellius and Otho, both commanding large armies. The latter was defeated, and Vitellius became the new, very unpopular emperor. This was the moment Vespasian had been hoping for, and Joseph's prophecy came true in July 69. Not only was Joseph released, he was also rewarded with the Roman citizenship, with the Roman name Titus Flavius Josephus, with an Egyptian wife, and with a role as advisor of the new crown prince Titus, who was to end the war.

When Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, Flavius Josephus served as his translator; he also had to persuade the defenders of Jerusalem to surrender. Since he was seen as a traitor, his arguments did not convince Jewish leaders like Josephus' old enemy John of Gischala. He was also mistrusted by many Romans, who attributed every reverse to some treachery on his part. However, Titus trusted and protected his advisor. The siege lasted almost half a year, and ended with the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

After the war, he accompanied Titus to Rome, where his sons Hyrcanus, Justus and Agrippa were born. The Jewish aristocrat, now protected by an influential Roman named Epaphroditus, embarked upon a writing career. In his books, he tried to explain Rome to the Jews and Judaism to the Romans. As far as we know, his books were not widely read; he was completely ignored by every pagan author but the philosopher Porphyry (On abstinence, 4.11). That they have come down to us, is largely due to Christian authors who were interested in Jewish history.

In 98, the last emperor of the house of Vespasian, the tyrannical Domitian, was murdered. Flavius Josephus no longer had a protector. It is unclear whether the change of regime was of any consequence to the author. In any case, we do not know of any publications, and we may infer that he died soon after Domitian.

Bust of Vespasian from Narona. Archaeological museum of Vid (Croatia). Photo Marco Prins.Bust of Vespasian from Narona (Archaeological museum of Vid)

Jewish War

Flavius Josephus wrote first work, the Jewish War, in Aramaic, and presented it to Vespasian between 75 and 79. An assistant translated it into the language of scholars of his days, Greek; this second edition was dedicated to Titus, who had become emperor in 79. The seventh book of the Jewish War, which describes the fate of the Jewish prisoners and the fall of Masada, is a later addition. Its title is slightly misleading. The books not only tell the story of the war between the Jews and Romans, but also deal with the preceding period from 175 BCE.

It should be stressed that Josephus is, according to ancient criteria, an excellent historian. Authors like Polybius of Megalopolis and Lucian have published treatises on the writing of history, and Josephus lives up to the standards they set. He knows the country he is describing, he has experience as commander of an army, and he understands the issues of the war. Moreover, he interviewed representatives of both sides. This is more than can be said about his younger contemporary Tacitus, who is usually regarded as a greater historian. As we will see below, modern scholars have criticized Josephus, though.

The Jewish War was written under imperial auspices. Vespasian and Titus gave the historian access to the imperial archives and to the logbook of their campaign. This enabled Josephus to write a reliable story, even about events at places where he had never been. At the same time, imperial patronage made the story unreliable. Vespasian's bid for power is presented in a favorable way; Titus is a valiant warrior whose heroism is matched only by his kindness towards the victims of the war.

Flavius Josephus' kindness towards his Roman benefactors does not mean that he is negative about the Jews. On the contrary, he has pity with 'the innocent' in Jerusalem, who are trapped inside a city under siege and cannot leave. At great length, he describes the atrocities to which they are subjected.

But his sympathy does not include all Jews. The responsibility for all the bloodshed rests squarely on the shoulders of the people that he describes as 'brigands', 'madmen', 'desperado's', or 'bandits': those are the invectives he has in store for violent nationalists like the Zealots, the Sicarians and men like John of Gischala. It is no coincidence that the Jewish War ends with a speech of the leader of the rebels at Masada, the Sicarian Eleaser, who more or less admits that all violence was a result of nationalistic agitation and also admits that God is angry. (The speech is, of course, written by Flavius Josephus himself. Almost no one survived the capture of Masada, and the historian can never have received a report of Eleaser's last words.)

The common people with their silly nationalistic ideas, their religious intolerance and their aggressive behavior are responsible for the disaster. The Jewish aristocrats -to which Flavius Josephus belonged- are of course not to blame for the war. The same applies to war crimes. These are invariably committed  by the rank and file, never by their officers.

In the first century, there were serious economic problems in Judaea. The rabbinical sources indicate that the Temple authorities were widely regarded as corrupt. In this conflict between the rich elite and the poor peasants, the Romans sided with the elite, as they always did. Peasant resistance against the Temple authorities coincided with resistance against the Romans. The war that started in 66 was not only a national revolt against a greedy emperor and his tactless governor, but also a class war among the Jews. Josephus, like every aristocrat, had no real sense of identification with the dispossessed and oppressed peasantry; ultimately, he did not understand the true cause of the war he described.


The baby from Jotapata


Jewish Antiquities

The twenty volumes of the Jewish Antiquities, in which Flavius Josephus explains Jewish history to a non-Jewish audience, appeared in 94. Its model is a book by the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote twenty books of Roman Antiquities. This time, Josephus wrote the text in Greek and did not use a translator. The result is a text which is less pleasant to read, even though its subject matter is very interesting. One of the author's aims is to show that the Jewish culture is older than any other then existing culture; the same idea can be found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived in the first half of the first century CE.

The first half of the Jewish Antiquities  is essentially nothing but a rephrasing of biblical texts: it tells the story of the Jews from the creation until the Persian rule. However, Josephus realized that non-Jews might reasonably ask questions about the reliability. Therefore, he supports the Biblical account with quotes from, for example, Berossus, who had read Babylonian sources, and Menander of Ephesus, who claimed to have studied Tyrian sources. There is some debate about the quotations, which may be from an intermediary source, Alexander Polyhistor, who took some liberties.

The second half of the Jewish Antiquities, dealing with the centuries between Alexander the Great and the great war against the Romans,  is based on previous historians (Polybius, 1 Maccabees, Nicolaus of Damascus, and the author of the Letter of Aristeas may be identified). Where the original sources are now lost, we may assume that Josephus has simply told in his own words what he has found in these sources. His value as a historian is as great as his sources. (Go here and here for stories from the Jewish Antiquities.)

Since the Jewish War and the Jewish Antiquities both cover the period 175 BCE - 66 CE, we can compare the two works. It has been shown that the second version is never a simple revision of what Josephus had written before; usually, he goes back to the same earlier historians and rephrases what he has read. For example, the account in the Jewish War 1.358-2.117 of king Herod's rule is not simply revised in the books fifteen, sixteen and seventeen of the Jewish Antiquities; instead, Josephus has again retold what was written in one basic source, Nicolaus of Damascus. Furthermore, there are additions that must come from the oral tradition of the Pharisees.

The Jewish Antiquities are a kind of world history, and Flavius Josephus' view is biblical. In the past, God used the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks to punish or to rescue His chosen people; now it was the Roman's turn to punish them. This was something the Greeks and Romans of his age could understand all too well. In almost every case, you can read 'Fortune' or 'Destiny' or 'Fate' instead of 'God'; on the other hand, when Flavius Josephus uses one of these common pagan expressions, he must have had the Jewish God in mind.

One of the most remarkable passages in the Jewish Antiquities is the 'Testimonium Flavianum':

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
[Jewish Antiquities, 18.63-64]
It is unlikely that a pious Jew like Flavius Josephus would have written that Jesus 'appeared to them on the third day, living again'; consequently, there has been a lot of scholarly debate about the explanation of this strange remark. Some argued that we had to admit that Flavius Josephus had become a Christian; others maintained that it was made up by some Byzantine monk who copied the Jewish Antiquities. The latter explanation can be ruled out because a more or less identical text had been found in an Arabian translation of a part of the Jewish Antiquities. In 1991, John Meier has suggested that Josephus did in fact mention Jesus, but that the text was glossed by a Christian author. His reconstruction of the text is as follows:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
Even in this reconstruction, this text is of monumental importance. Not only is Flavius Josephus the only first century non-Christian writer mentioning Jesus' life, teachings and death independently of the of the gospels, but he also suggests that Jesus was innocent. A straightforward report would have told that Pilate executed the man from Nazareth because he was considered to be the king of the Jews. But instead of naming the accusation, the Jewish historian names the accusers. Since he usually delights in writing about the deserved punishment of rebels and pretenders, the fact that he does not inform us of the charge, means that he thought that Jesus was innocent.
quote 1:
Alexander the Great
visits Jerusalem

quote 2:
fighting in the

quote 3:
John the Baptist

Menander of Ephesus


Josephus' Autobiography appeared as an appendix to a second or third edition of the Jewish Antiquities. It is a reply to a libel by one Justus of Tiberias, who had portrayed Josephus' operations in Galilee as brutal and tyrannical. To Josephus, this was a dangerous publication, because people were reminded of the fact that he had once led an army against Rome and was responsible for the death of many Roman soldiers. Josephus had always been protected by the emperors of the house of Vespasian, but the behavior of the emperor Domitian was erratic, and Josephus was well advised to defend himself.

Josephus starts to tell about his aristocratic descent, devotes a few pages to his youth, and describes his activities as a general. It overlaps the story of the Jewish Wars, and comparison of the two narratives shows us that Josephus can simplify, exaggerate, invent, suppress, and distort his story as he likes.

Statuette of Epaphroditus. Palazzo Altieri, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Epaphroditus of Chaeronea (Palazzo Altieri, Rome)

Against the Greeks (or Against Apion)

The two volumes of Against the Greeks, on the Antiquity of the Jewish people appeared in c.96. Dedicated to Epaphroditus, it is an apology of Judaism against all kinds of anti-Semitic slander, which had been collected by the Alexandrian author Apion in a History of Egypt; it is therefore also known as Against Apion. Josephus explains what Jewish cult, law, and religion are really about. Its conclusion is worth quoting:
I would therefore boldly maintain that the Jews have introduced to the rest of the world a very large number of beautiful ideas. What higher justice than obedience to the laws? What more beneficial than to be in harmony with one another, to be a prey neither to disunion in adversity, nor to arrogance and faction in prosperity; in war to despise death, in peace to devote oneself to crafts or agriculture; and to be convinced that everything in the whole universe is under the eye and direction of God?
[Against the Greeks, 2.293-294]
It is a pity that Against the Greeks did not find many readers. A few years after its appearance, the Roman historian Tacitus published his Histories, which is devoted to the civil wars of 'the long but single year' 69 and the siege of Jerusalem. There is not a single instance where Tacitus betrays knowledge of other sources than the anti-Semitic books Josephus had tried to refute.


A fine introduction to Josephus' work can be found in John D. Crossan's The historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant (1992 San Francisco), pages 91-100. More specialistic: Per Bilde, Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: his Life, his Works and their Importance (1988 Sheffield) and Louis Feldman, 'Flavius Josephus revisited. The man, his writings, and his significance' in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 21.2 (1984). The idea that Josephus never was a Pharisee, as was first argued by Steve Mason, is discussed by John P. Meier, A marginal Jew. Rethinking the historical Jesus. Volume three: companions and competitors (2001 New York) 301-305.
     On the Testimonium Flavianum, see the important article by John P. Meier in his monumental study A marginal Jew. Rethinking the historical Jesus. Volume 1: the roots of the problem and the person (1991 New York), pages 56-88. This article settles the matter.
     On Josephus' use of sources, see Shaye J.D. Cohen, Josephus in Galilee and Rome. His Vita and development as a historian, Columbia Studies in the Classical tradition 8 (1979 Leiden). 

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