02.02.14 Josephus. He was born as Josephus ben Mattathias, and by a series of unusual events he retired in Rome as Flavius Josephus. He was of a noble family of priests which traced its descent from the Hasmoneans, a powerful family of the second and first centuries B.C. So one might expect him to be a Sadducee, but in his biography, written in A.D. 94 or 95, he clearly identified himself as a Pharisee. He was a brilliant scholar well versed in the writings of the Greeks and the Romans. While not a theologian, he remained faithful to the priestly ideals of the Jewish theocracy. He served as a military general in Galilee in the early days of the “First Revolt” (A.D. 66-70), but when he realized the Jewish cause was hopeless, he encouraged his fellow Jews to make a truce with the Romans. That failed. He also predicted that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome. While the Jews refused to consider his advice, the Romans eventually rewarded him. After the fall of Jerusalem, he retired in Rome under the imperial patronage and wrote his major works pertaining to the Jewish people for a Roman audience. Of his four literary works, Wars and Antiquities are the most significant.
- His first book, the Wars of the Jews, was written from A.D. 75-79. It covers important people and events between the rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175 B.C. to destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Josephus had access to a number of historic sources, including 1 Maccabees and the Chronicles of the Priesthood of John Hycranus.
- The Antiquities of the Jews, was written from A.D. 93-95, to help the Romans understand the Jewish religion and way of life. It is also an apologetic work defending the Hebrew Bible. In it he recorded many interesting historical accounts that are related to, but are not mentioned in the Old Testament narratives. It is a running history from earliest biblical history to the First Jewish War. Josephus had access to the imperial library and referred to the works of other writers, such as John of Damascus who was the historian for Herod the Great, and the Greek historian Strabo.
- The book Against Apion, is also an apologetic works,
- Josephus also wrote a brief biography titled The Life of Flavius Josephus.
Critics of his day, namely the Zealots and most Jewish people, considered him to have been a traitor. Possibly his most outspoken critic was John of Giscala who personally financed a company of Zealot soldiers to fight the Romans. John stirred up the people against Josephus and some historians claim he even attempted to kill him. That may be the reason why Josephus was given a retirement in Rome rather than in the Holy Land. Yet Josephus strongly defended the Jewish faith and people; he shifted the blame of the revolt from the population at large (as the Romans perceived it) to a minority of unwise leaders and Zealots.
Josephus is frequently quoted by scholars because he presents detailed descriptions of places, peoples, festivals, and other cultural events, as well as the socio-political environment in the two centuries preceding Christ. He died shortly into the second century leaving a wealth of written information. No study can be complete without his comments. The value of his work lies in two areas:
- Just as the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect first-century Judaism unchanged by Christian belief, Josephus likewise has insights into the cultural, social, and political forces in which Jesus lived. Simply said, his writings were not influenced by Christianity; they are purely from a Jewish perspective. From his pen we have the oldest comments about Jesus, John the Baptist, and the death of James, the half-brother of Jesus.
- His writings, namely the Antiquities, clearly reflect his theology and that he believed in the historical accuracy of the Old Testament, as it relates to secular historical accounts. His work also agrees with other ancient writers concerning the Inter-Testamental Period. Therefore, it can be assumed that his descriptions of the first century are equally accurate.
However, there is a note of caution for the serious research student: scholars have observed, and this writer agrees, that Josephus is not without his biases.
- It has been pointed out that his accounts of the population of various communities, distances between communities, and the agricultural production of the land are, on occasion, exaggerated.
- Also, he was careful not to blame the Romans for the uprising that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Why would he, since he was given a comfortable retirement and spacious villa?
Josephus received his information from a variety of sources, including Nicholas of Damascus, the personal historian for Herod the Great. Nonetheless, any reader must filter his biased opinions. Critics of Josephus, however, tend to overlook other ancient writers who agreed with him. For example, Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27 B.C.) was a wealthy Roman scholar who produced seventy-four literary works on numerous topics, including agriculture. In his work, Agriculture, he identified three areas in the Roman Empire where crop yields were one hundred fold. They are,
- Sybaris in Italy,
- Gadara in Syria, and
- Byzacium in Africa.
Varro mentioned Gadara as being in Syria because that region was under the governmental district of Syria, as was Galilee at that time. More specifically, he wrote that in this region the crop yield was “a hundred to one.” This observation would certainly have made Josephus proud. Another ancient author who described the bounty of his land was Herodotus who said of Babylonia that,
In grain, it is so fruitful as to yield commonly two-hundred fold; and when the production is the greatest, even three-hundred fold.
Herodotus, The Histories 1.93
Scholars have noted that the comments by Josephus concerning the Essenes’ care for the poor and needy is echoed in the Essene Damascus Document (14.14), which is additional evidence of the historian’s care concerning accuracy. He remains one of the most important sources of information concerning first century life in Judaea. His description of the Roman conquest of the ancient Zealot city of Gamala is another excellent example of his historical accuracy. The city fell in A.D. 66 and remained undisturbed and lost in history.
However, in recent history, one day an Israeli military officer flew over some mountains that he recognized by the description Josephus wrote concerning the setting of Gamala. A short time later in the late 1970s archaeologists began to excavate the site. They found his descriptions, such as patched walls and filled-in buildings, precisely as he had described. Likewise, when he described the Roman conquest of Masada, his details of the fortress palace, including various rooms and destructive events that had occurred, have been found to be precise, even though he was not there. He obtained his information from a number of individuals who were there and personally witnessed the conquest. Therefore, while some of his opinions are biased, most of his observations are incredibly accurate. Josephus is also valuable concerning some Jewish cultural attributes.
In his youthful years, he placed himself under the instruction of the major religious sects of Judaea. In his work Vita 2 (10-12), he claims to have studied with the Essenes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and an individual by the name of Bannus, of whom little is known. Josephus had excellent reading and writing skills for his day, considering the magnitude of writings he produced. While historians have seen him as a Jewish Pharisee, a few others speculate that he may have quietly converted to Christianity. In fact, some believe that at the time of these writings, he had been an Ebionite Christian for many years. This, however, remains a minority view. His comments on the life of Christ and related events have been subject of many scholarly discussions.
. There are two major methods in referring to the literary works of Josephus. The most common method was created by William Whiston who divided each literary work into books, chapters, and paragraphs. For example, the death of James in Antiquities of the Jews is found in Antiquities 20.9.1. Another method is the Loeb edition which divides each of Whiston’s books into smaller sections. Therefore, the same account of James is found in Antiquities 20 (200) or 20.200.
. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 10-12; See also Stemberger. Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes. 6.
 See 02.02.01.V for more information on this subject.
. Whiston, ed. The Works of Josephus Complete and Unabridged. 543 note “a.”
. Martin, L. Hellenistic Religions. 40-42.
. Golub, In the Days. 328-29.
. Schreckenberg, “Josephus, Flavius.” 2:1132-33; Stone, “Josephus, Flavius.” 3:696-97; Bruce, “Josephus, Flavius.” 2:816.
. Josephus, Antiquities 16.7.1 (183).
. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/1*.html Retrieved July 9, 2011.
. Cited by Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:80.
. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. 98; Bruce, “Josephus, Flavius” 2:816; Schmalz and Fischer, The Messianic Seal. 24; Grant, M. Ancient Historians, 258.
. Syon, “Gamla:” 30. The name “Gamla” is sometimes spelled “Gamala.”
. Schreckenberg, “Josephus, Flavius.” 2:1132-33.
. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus. 3, 13, 15, 19, 21, 25.
. Whiston, ed., The Works of Josephus. 9 – See footnote “k.”
. For further study see Appendix 31.