The knowledge of the life of Josephus, Flavius ( 37-ca. 100 CE) comes directly from his own writings, four of which have survived. A history of war called The Jewish War comprised of seven books, in which he attempts to dissuade his people and other nations from courting annihilation by extending their revolts against the all powerful Roman Empire. A history of the Jews from the creation up to the war (66 CE)where he movingly describes how his people had flourished under God's law. An autobiography called Life and a defence of Judaism Against Apion where he refutes the charges made against the Jews made by the anti-Semitic Greek grammarian Apion (fl. 1st cent.) and other writers of similar opinions. Against Apion is his most invaluable contribution, because Josephus recapitulates writings on Jewish history, religious life and culture that are no longer in existence. A key to understanding the last two pre-Christian and first post-Christian centuries. So influential is his work in playing a role in the developing culture of the Radical Reformation that the Puritans who arrived in New England owned in addition to their Bibles the writings of Josephus.

Born Joseph ben Matthias his life can be separated into two parts: the controversial and dramatic years in Judea and the years he spent living in Rome as the client and some sources say as a prisoner of the Flavian emperors. Born in Jerusalem he spent his adolescence in the wilds as a member of the Essenes, a monastic brotherhood of Jews in Palestine who practiced from the 2d century B.C. to the 2d century A.D. Josephus found their devotion to scripture and ascetic way of life romantic.

As he matured he aligned himself with the Pharisees and played an important role in the revolt by the Zealots (qv). This led to the ambiguity and often conflicting accounts in the writings of Josephus. Beginning in 66 CE during the revolt against Rome by the Zealots he was appointed as general to take charge of the defence of Galilee (in what is now Israel). In one account he writes that he took charge of the forces there to lead the Galilean phase and yet in another later accounting he writes that he sought to prevent the revolt rather than play an role in leading it. The end results of his preparations were negated when Vespasian overran the Jewish forces. By Jospehus telling this defeat was because of the superior forces of the Roman army and tactical skills of their leader. But detractors declared that Jospehus had been a traitor and the Roman victory was from some form of treachery committed by Josephus himself; this suspicion of Josephus would follow him for the rest of his life. Josephus and some of companions escaped the besieged town of Jopata and formed a suicide pact to escape capture of the Romans. Somehow Jospehus managed to become the lone survivor of this scheme and them promptly surrendered to the Romans. Whichever story may be true Josephus did succeed in preparing Galilee for the coming onslaught in 67 and valorously repulsed Vespasian for a time. Having proven his military abilities with his 47 day defence of Jopata garnered him the respect and later a prized position with Vespian. He would have been sent as a prisoner to Nero had he not possessed the wit to prophecy that his captor, Vespasian would one day be an emperor. The prophecy aligned with Vespasian's ambitions and when this prophecy came true Vespasian chose to keep Josephus by his side most likely saving his life. Thus adopting the family name of Flavius from Vespasian he later found himself in the position of accompanying another future emperor Titus, the son of Vespasian. It was during the siege of Jerusalem by Titus that he came to witness and record its subjugation in 70 CE.

Spending the remainder of his years under their royal patronage he discovered the Romans had a great interest in Judaism and Jewish history. He first earned their attentions by devoting himself as a skilled historian. Producing his works under the name Josephus, Flavius he wrote about The Jewish War in seven books in order the set the scene, describing how the Jewish people and the history of their unrest beginning two hundred and fifty years in the past up to the great rebellion. His account of the war then takes two directions managing to depict the heroism and courage of the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem and at the same time magnify the deeds of the Roman generals.

The Romans whose interests were now flattered as welll as piqued about the history of the Jews, Jospehus set about writing a rather lack luster but exceedingly comprehensive accounting. In the first ten books of The Jewish Antiquities he expands and embellishes his own paraphrasing of their history and the Hebrew Bible, supplanting his narrative with Jewish lore known as Haggadah and further combines relevant Greek sources. In the second series of Antiquities, Josephus commits his writings to the rise and reign of Herod the Great using to a large extent the writings of the secretary to Herod, Nicolas of Damascus.

After his charming reply to Apion in his Against Apion where he defends the Jewish people and their religion to these ancient slanders of the Jewish people, at last, Josephus presented his autobiography. Originally a part of the Antiquities most of which relates again what was written in The Jewish War but with more information as the authors dispute with a rival historian Justus of Tiberius. Josephus enjoyed imperial patronage of his final days with the Romans under Titus and later his brother and successor Domitian until his death in Rome around 98 - 100 CE.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Josephus, Flavius," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.


I am a great fan of the classical historians. When I was in my teens, my grandfather and I used to read some of these old books and discuss them together. Apart from the Shiji, I have never really found the histories of any other ancient civilization to rival them. Josephus is high on my list of favorites.

As with Caesar before him, Josephus' war history portrays him in too favorable a light to be credible. I suppose that is the dilemma of reading the words of an eyewitness with a flair for drama.

A famous story in Book III of the Jewish War is Josephus' suicide pact. He and some of his followers found themselves beseiged in a cave, with the Romans led by Vespasian urging surrender. Josephus says he knew (as a member of the priestly caste he was able to interpret certain dreams) that it was God's desire he should live on as a Roman citizen after the destruction of Judea, but the other Jews with him were unanimously determined to commit collective suicide. Since he was unable to change their minds, and since they were threatening to kill him, he proposed that they should at least find a way to die without committing the grave sin of suicide. They would draw numbered lots. Each man would kill the man who drew the next lowest lot, until only one man with the highest lot remained; the last man would kill himself. The group agreed to this, and lo and behold ("shall we put it down to divine providence or just to luck?") he was the last man. Josephus not only lived, but convinced the last man to live, too, so that he himself would not have to commit the (equally grave) sin of killing a fellow Jew.

This story is well known. (There is actually a class of combinatorial problems in discrete mathematics called the Josephus Problem.) My grandfather remembered reading the story in a Russian version as a boy in what is now Poland. But he remembered the end differently, and indeed the Slavonic version of the tale has Josephus stealthily allowing himself to draw the highest number.

As I reread the book today, the most striking thing is the fanaticism of the Jews in the time of the Second Temple. You cannot help thinking of the extremism of the violent sects of modern Islamists. 1900 years of diaspora seem to have largely eliminated this particular strain of fundamentalism from Judaism. Well, but why don't people recommend reading the Jewish War for understanding Islamist psychology (both peaceful and violent)?

I feel torn, really. There is a part of me that responds hungrily to the message of fundamentalist loyalty to ancient rules of life. What alternative is there to monotheism? The very idea of an alternative seems absurd. Another part of me prefers the amalgamating culture of the Great City, which fundamentalists of all religions generally condemn. Fundamentalists, of course, tend to idolize the simplicity of peasant ways.

In the City, things are not simple. People come within the city walls to see things they would never see in the countryside. They come to hear music their parents never heard, eat things their parents would never have dreamed of eating. They come to trade, they come perhaps in search of forbidden love or forbidden medicine for their country ills. They come to explore ideas that are not accepted in the countryside, and to meet people they could never meet there. They come to ask questions, and maybe to hear questions asked that they can't answer. Monotheism or no, where else would you want to live?

I do understand the pull of fundamentalist monotheism, and I suppose New York is, after all, Babylon or Rome. But I see in it no connection with the human sacrifices of ancient Babylon or the enforced immoralities of Rome. What the City as I have known it stands for is tolerance - of everything but intolerance. What the City stands for is something immensely good, and better than what people who speak for God usually say.

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