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Recorder of Jewish History

by Etienne Nodet, O.P.

Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived between 37 and 96 C.E., is the best source we have for re-creating the first century of Christianity, the time in which Jesus lived and in which most of the New Testament was written. To him we are indebted for shedding light on the diversity within Judaism at that time, the customs that were observed, the Roman occupation and the way in which ordinary people conducted their lives.

His Early Life

Josephus was born of an important priestly family in Jerusalem in 37 C.E., the year of Emperor Tiberius' death. After a good education and training with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the three main Jewish schools of his time, he tells us that he chose "to conduct himself according to the rules of the Pharisees."

He was appointed as a high-ranking official in Jerusalem and at the age of 25 or 26 he was sent to Rome with a Jewish delegation to ask Emperor Nero to release some pious priests, taken captive there. He does not elaborate, but in all probability, this involved the high priest Ananias who had been removed by the Romans after he had James, the brother of Jesus, and Bishop of Jerusalem, put to death. (Ananias, who was known for his political skills and piety, should have known better. Martyrdom increased James' fame, which resulted in more disturbances).

Revolt Against Roman Rule

Zealot religious violence and divisions were gearing up. In 66, some Zealots defeated Roman troops near Jerusalem, breaking a truce between the Romans and the Jews. Nero decided on a major retaliation. On the Jewish side, Josephus was sent to Galilee to prepare a defense war. This was a difficult position, because the Roman army would invade from the north and the Jewish society in this northern part of the country was seriously divided.

The country people—mostly Pharisean peasants—could not accept the Jews of the Romanized cities, especially Tiberius, the capital built by Herod Antipas. Not only was it built on a cemetery, which outraged Jewish sensibilities, but it was named after the Roman emperor. Josephus' trip to Rome had convinced him that no real victory over the Romans was possible. His main task was to overcome the divisions among the Jewish parties in order to find a way to avoid the war. But the conflicts were so deeply rooted that he failed, and had to be content, when the Roman threat came close, with assembling a superficially united army.

When he was besieged in a key city, he managed to escape from his countrymen and surrender to Vespasian Flavius, the Roman general. He was taken captive, but when brought before Vespasian he predicted that the general would become emperor. His prophecy proved true two years later when Vespasian was appointed emperor of Rome in 69. Vespasian freed Josephus and gave him his own Roman name, hence the well-known pen name Josephus Flavius.

A Writer of Rome

This was the starting point of the second part of his life. Titus, son of Vespasian, took over as general from his father. Josephus became an interpreter for the Romans and witnessed the great Judaean war and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He was taken back to Rome and ordered to write a history of the war. When he died, some of his projects were unfinished, but he left four works, totaling some 90,000 lines of text.

His first book is entitled Jewish Wars. The core of the book is an account of the events he lived, from 66 until the fall of Masada in 74. He mentions the Temple of Peace, opened by Vespasian in Rome in 75, which included all the religious articles taken from the Jerusalem Temple by Titus and brought in triumph to the capital city.

In the prologue, he states that the true historian is the one who has witnessed the facts, instead of compiling and rearranging ancient documents, which was the main rule of Greek historiography. However, he puts the start of his narrative at the Maccabaean crisis, more than two centuries earlier, when a desecration of the temple by the Greeks was followed by a restoration. He saw this as ancient history becoming a prophecy for present events. This is a typically Jewish perspective: The historian is a prophet, and the prophet speaks of history.

His second work, Jewish Antiquities, is made up of 20 volumes and is Josephus' major work. He begins with Creation and Adam, for he wants to show that his nation is actually ancient. Thus he paraphrases the Hebrew Bible, and continues until 66 C.E., just before the war. Before the time of Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.E.) he adds almost no external evidence, but for the Hellenistic and Roman periods, he provides us with invaluable, non-biblical documentation on the fate of Judea. From the Maccabaean crisis onwards, he seriously expands what he already said in the War. These parallel portrayals are sometimes inconsistent, which allows an assessment of the way he worked.

His third book, The Vita (or Life) is an autobiography. He gives a brief sketch of his life, but almost all the book is devoted to the six months he spent in Galilee in 66-67, restating in a different way what he already wrote in the War. He tells at length of the internal Jewish conflicts and strives to justify his action. But he stops when serious events begin, i.e., the war against the Romans, and refers the reader to his previous work. So the scope of the book looks quite parochial, all the more so as it was written 25 years after the battles, and cannot have been of interest for the general Greek-speaking people. In fact, the intended readers are the Jews, and especially the Pharisees, for whom Galilee was the key region in the land of Israel. In other words, Josephus was anxious to present and defend his credentials, for he wanted to display a convincing Pharisean flag.

In Against Apion, his last extant work, Josephus addresses the Gentiles, and wears the hat of a polemicist. In this brilliant essay, he refutes two kinds of attacks voiced against the Jews. First, he replies to Apion, an Alexandrian philosopher, and to others, in order to show that Judaism is neither coarse idolatry nor a collection of uncivilized customs, but on the contrary is much greater than any elitist Greek philosophy. He stresses that the Mosaic laws, of which he gives a beautiful summary, are unanimously and willingly kept and defended by a whole nation, and not by little schools of professionals. Second, he wants to prove that his nation and religion have an ancient history. For this, he does not quote the Bible, which was not an authority for Gentile readers, but collects as proof-texts an array of passages from ancient Greek historians whose works are now lost.

For Whom Did Josephus Write?

Unlike Against Apion, the War is addressed to the general reader. Josephus' major thesis is very simple: First, it is nonsense to rebel against the overall Roman supremacy, for such is the will of God; second, the Jews are strong and brave, but their divisions caused their fall; even God got tired of Jerusalem, and wanted to move to Rome. As for the Antiquities and Life, Josephus seems to speak to educated Gentiles, and suggests he was prompted to do so by Roman officials. But some features indicate that he envisioned mainly Jewish readers. For instance, his main source is the Bible, which was unimportant outside of Judaism and the work itself is quite thick and lengthy, especially when he paraphrases the historical books of the Bible, expounding the narrative with all its minute details. This forms a sharp contrast with the easy style of Against Apion. Further, he says at the end of the Antiquities that his countrymen acknowledge he exceeds them by far in Jewish learning, and that he is well acquainted with Greek culture. His autobiography develops these credentials for Jewish readers.

What Was His Goal?

We may move one step farther: What can have been Josephus' agenda behind these literary activities? After the war, he wanted to restore Judaism upon new foundations. Roman domination was inescapable, and the Judean vassal monarchy (the Herods) had proven inefficient. Priestly rulers, entitled by biblical tradition to teach, seemed to be much more appropriate. But the Jerusalem Temple compound, returned to some functioning, worked on a much lesser scale, for the Romans had confiscated the Jewish religious taxes.

On the other hand, the Pharisean traditions were the main reference of the Jews outside Judea, and had been of old granted recognition in many cities of the Empire. Thus the learned priest Josephus took the pose of both a teacher and a Pharisee, defending his nation. He even tried to enforce the custom of the Passover lamb in Rome, which elicited some controversies. We may observe that the center of the Antiquities is the Babylonian exile, a major event, and Josephus takes this opportunity to stress the importance of two prophets: Jeremiah, who was suspected by his countrymen in Judea, and Daniel, who held a difficult position in a foreign court. Josephus, who has introduced himself as a prophet, is ostensibly both a new Jeremiah and a new Daniel.

At the same time, another attempt to restore Judaism was launched by Gamaliel (ca. 90), another prominent Pharisee, in a little town of Judea called Jamnia, south of Jaffa. It should be noted that this Jewish city had been since Herod's time a private property of Caesar, remotely connected to Jerusalem. So this movement started under a Roman umbrella, too, and tried to avoid any Zealot spirit. One century later, after many events, its outcome was no less than the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.

How Religious Was He?

It is true that his religious feelings are somewhat conventional and tasteless. It has often been said that by surrendering to Vespasian, Josephus flatly betrayed his compatriots and managed to obtain a good career and significant profits. On the face of it, this seems to be obvious. But we may note that a rabbinic tradition states that Yohanan ben Zakkai, the Galilean Pharisee who founded the Jamnia school (before Gamaliel), surrendered to Vespasian from a besieged city and uttered the same prediction.

It is difficult to believe that the same unusual event occurred twice at the same time, during the same war: Since the rabbinic sources were published much later and always put interpretation over historical accuracy, we may conclude that Josephus' story was transferred to Yohanan, who was never viewed as a traitor. This indicates that after the war there was a struggle between two different attempts to restore the Pharisean traditions, one in Rome, the other in Judea, but both accepted Roman rule.

Josephus gives an account of the death of James. Besides this, the Antiquities has two short passages on Jesus and John the Baptist, in this order, which are rather favorable. Ancient Christian writers quote them as external evidence and praise Josephus' impartiality: though he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, he was able to speak of him as Christ.

Modern critics have suspected Christian forgeries, or at least pious editing by creative copyists. The present writer thinks that these passages are authentic and unaltered. However, they do not witness directly what Josephus could have heard in Judea, but depend on his knowledge of the tenets of Christianity in Rome. Concerning John, Josephus only says that he was killed by Herod Antipas, without further details; for Jesus, he tells nothing of his deeds and sayings, but gives a brief account of his passion and resurrection. These two fragments come from one baptismal confession of faith, which put a contrast between "the baptism of John, who was killed under Herod..." and "...in the name of Jesus Christ, who was killed under Pilate, and rose from death." In other words, Josephus witnesses to an early form of the Roman Creed.

Let us add one detail. Josephus, a Jew, says that Jesus was the Christ, which has puzzled many commentators. But this statement does not necessarily entail any Christian faith on his part, for the word Christians was first coined by Roman authority for Jewish messianic activists in the major cities, for whom the Messiah (Christ) was about to come. At the beginning, there was no connection with Jesus. Later on, some disciples around Barnabas and Paul were called thus at Antioch, for they were involved in some disturbances, and the term remained attached to them, with all its criminal implications. The Jerusalem community with the apostles was never called "Christian."

To sum up, the canonical Gospels give what is necessary for Christian life, but it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Josephus to shed some light upon the historical context of early Christianity. Josephus died in 96 C.E. While he married four times, he left no known posterity. His works, however, have made him immortal.

Etienne Nodet O. P., a French Dominican, has lived and taught at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem for 25 years. His training and field of research and teaching is ancient Judaism. He is the author of several books and scholarly articles.

Next: Covenant (by Virginia Smith)


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