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 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.
At least, this is what he writes in his Autobiography. The problem is that it cannot 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, 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.note[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.note[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.note[Josephus, 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. 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 far as we know, his books were not widely read; he was completely ignored by every pagan author but the philosopher Porphyry.note[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.