Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Recorder of Jewish History
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
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 peoplemostly Pharisean peasantscould
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
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
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
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.
Next: Covenant (by Virginia Smith)