Josephus   [37-ca 100 CE]

The historian known to posterity by the Latinized name Josephus was a member of Jerusalem's priestly aristocracy who, at age 30, was taken hostage in the great Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) & spent the rest of his life in Roman circles as a protégé of three emperors [Vespasian, Titus & Domitian]. His constant need to explain his role in the unsuccessful Jewish uprising that climaxed with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple led him to publish four works [in Greek] that are our prime source for information about events that shaped the history of Jews of the second temple period.

Joseph bar Matthew [Greek: Matthias], as Josephus was originally known, was born soon after Caligula became Roman emperor (37/38 CE). He was one of two sons of a Jewish priest who claimed descent from the Hasmonean family of priests who had won Jewish independence from the Greco-Syrian empire two centuries earlier. A precocious youth with a thirst for learning, Josephus claims that by the time he was 14 he was already consulted on legal problems by Jerusalem's chief priests [Life 8]. At age 16 he began three years of intense religious training. After basic introduction to the principles of the three primary Judean factions [Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes], Josephus attached himself to an ascetic hermit [Bannus] who was an advocate of a natural lifestyle in the wilderness of Judea. When he returned to Jerusalem (57 CE), he associated himself with the majority party of the Pharisees. Factionalism was intensifying in Judea, however, with an increase of demagogues & revolutionary bands. Roman prefects, responsible for maintaining social order, reacted swiftly & ruthlessly to suppress dissent from any quarter. When Gessius Florus sent some priests that Josephus knew in chains to Rome 
(64
CE), he followed to petition the emperor [Nero] to release them. The emperor's consort, Poppea, introduced the 26 year old Jewish aristocrat to the imperial court & supported his cause. This successful mission left Josephus favorably impressed by the grandeur & power of Rome & with a first-hand familiarity with imperial circles that few of his contemporary Jews could match.

By the time he returned to Jerusalem, however, the Jewish revolt had already begun (66 CE). A radical faction [led by Menachem, a son of Judah "the Galilean" who had led a tax revolt against Rome 60 years earlier] had seized the fortress of Antonia, forcing priests to seek refuge in the temple below. As rival revolutionary factions vied for control of Jerusalem & murdered their opponents [including Menachem], Josephus & other priests aligned themselves with the cause of independence. The rebels, encouraged by their decisive defeat of Roman troops that the governor of Syria [Cestius Gallus] dispatched to pacify the city, sent Josephus to fortify Galilee & persuade Galileans to join the revolt. Giscala [Gush cHalav] & other towns in rural northwestern Galilee were already centers of revolt. But the Romanized cities of the more populated southern tier [Sepphoris & Tiberias] were reluctant to join a war with Rome. The rebels in Jerusalem apparently thought that Josephus, as an aristocrat with success as a negotiator in Rome, could persuade hesitant Galileans to support the cause of independence. He met little success either as a negotiator or a military leader, however, characteristically blaming others for his failures. The residents of the old Galilean capitol, Sepphoris---whose city had been destroyed by Roman armies 72 years earlier, in the uprising following Herod's death (4 BCE)---would not be part of a rebellion. The population of Tiberias---the lakeside metropolis built by Herod's son, Antipas---was divided but unwilling to accept Josephus as their leader. Josephus succeeded in fortifying the central Galilean city of Jotapata [Yodefat], but was fortunate to survive its capture. Upon his surrender, he predicted the man who defeated him [Vespasian] would become emperor of Rome, a prediction soon made possible by Nero's suicide (68 CE). Taken to Jerusalem as a hostage, Josephus was eye-witness to the Roman siege. When Vespasian was called to Rome to become emperor (69 CE), he directed his son Titus to continue the siege. Josephus was held in the Roman camp & witnessed the destruction of the temple (70 CE) that had been the center of his family's life for generations.

Taken to Rome after the war, Josephus was declared a freed man, granted Roman citizenship, provided a pension & lodging on Vespasian's estates. He adopted the family name of his imperial patrons & was thus known to Romans as Flavius Josephus. He was near the top of Vespasian's "civil list" of Roman citizens. He witnessed first-hand the rebuilding of Rome after Nero's fire (65 CE) & the erection of the Flavian monuments [Colosseum, the temple of Peace, the forum of Vespasian & the arch of Titus, depicting the conquest of the temple in Jerusalem]. He used his position both to support the cause of the Flavian emperors & to defend his own place as a fixture in their court. Though he gave his children gentile names, he remained dedicated to his Jewish heritage, spending years writing voluminous works to explain & glorify those who championed the laws of Moses to Romans who, in the wake of the Jewish revolt, regarded all Jews as lawless riff-raff & bandits. After his death a statue was erected to him & his works placed in the Roman public library, where they came to be a major source of information for all later historians: Christian, Jewish & secular [Eusebius, History of the Church 3.9].

Josephus' surviving works are:

Other resources on line:

 Josephus' lineage

Perspective on the World of Jesus

Copyright © 1999-2017 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

an American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website
OCLC catalog no.: 62046512