A famous Jewish historian of his people, who wrote in Greek during the second half of the first century A.D. As he reports in his autobiography, through his father Matthias he was a member of the priestly family of Jehoiarib (cf. 1 Chr. 24:7), which rose to high-priestly rank. Moreover, through his mother he was a descendant of the royal house of the Hasmonaeans/Maccabees, and was thus, as he emphasizes, of royal blood. In accordance with his lineage and his father’s social position, he received an excellent education.
For a noble Jewish boy in Jerusalem at that time, this included intensive study of the religion and history of his people, as well as a comprehensive introduction to Hellenistic culture, which imparted a knowledge of the important parts of classical Greek literature in its original language and of the basic rules of rhetoric. Naturally, in view of the importance of the high-priestly families in the Sanhedrin, the central body for Jewish self-administration, correct information concerning the position of the Jews in all parts of the Roman Empire was also included.
Josephus probably never participated in the priestly activities in the Temple. Rather, when he was old enough, he likely went into the service of the Sanhedrin. However, in 64 he traveled to Rome on a diplomatic mission, in order to effect the release of some priests whom the procurator Felix (52-60) had arrested, presumably for political reasons, and had sent to Rome for judgment by the emperor.
Josephus resolved this difficult issue quickly and completely, and thereby earned the confidence of the Jewish authorities in his political abilities. Thus in 66, as one who held the moderate political views of the Pharisees, he received the task of restraining the rebels in Jerusalem, who were pressing toward open conflict with the Romans. After he failed in this attempt, the remaining official authorities in Jerusalem sent him to Galilee to secure peace and order there at least.
He failed again, but after various difficulties was named commander of the regular Jewish forces in Galilee. After a total defeat in 67 he was captured under very curious circumstances by the Romans. Handed over to Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces, in the presence of Vespasian’s son Titus, Josephus predicted Vespasian’s elevation to caesar and emperor. Vespasian therefore granted him his life and kept him in his company, though as a captive.
After Nero’s death in 68 and Vespasian’s enthronement in 69, Josephus was released and from then on called himself Josephus Flavius as a sign of his connection to the new imperial family. Vespasian attached him to the suite of Titus, his son and successor (79-81), who was appointed to bring the Jewish war to an end. During the siege of Jerusalem in 70, Josephus tried repeatedly, but in vain, to persuade the rebels to surrender and especially to preserve the Temple from destruction. After the city’s capture he lived in Rome, now a Roman citizen and a distinguished member of the Flavian court, especially during the reign of Domitian (81-96), who valued the company of scholars. Josephus probably died in Rome; the date and the exact circumstances are not known.
During Vespasian’s lifetime Josephus composed the history of the Jewish war, probably in Aramaic. This first edition, which is lost, was followed by a final edition in Greek, which he prepared with the assistance of good stylists for the general Hellenistic public. His further works are the history of the Jewish people from the beginnings to the outbreak of the Jewish war (Antiquitates Judaicae), designed for educated non-Jews; an autobiography (Vita); and a learned discussion on contemporary anti-Semitism (Contra Apionem). Probably he wrote and published all these works during Domitian’s reign.
In the course of its social and spiritual reorganization after 70, Jewry lost all contact with the literary work of Josephus for many centuries. Deficiencies of language may have hindered the reading of the Greek texts. It is, however, much more likely, based on Josephus’ reports on his life and actions during the war, that in leading Jewish circles there was the conviction that he was a deserter and a traitor to his nation. In any case, his works were ignored until the tenth century.
But then they appear as historical sources of a popular Hebrew book with the title Josippon, which narrates the history of the Jewish people up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70. Obviously the unknown author used one of the Latin translations of Josephus’ works, which—except for this autobiography—had been made in the church since the fourth century. Today Josephus and his works are a favorite subject of Jewish scholarship.
Surely the Latin translations reflect the reputation that the works of Josephus gained in the old Western Christian church. Similar popularity is attested by the partial texts of Josephus in Syriac and Slavic, which are not translations, strictly speaking, but reworkings with an explicitly Christian orientation. There is no Coptic translation. During the Middle Ages the works of Josephus were a favorite part of reading matter in the Western church, no less so than the works of the fathers of the church.
This is astonishing, in view of the fact that early Christianity plays virtually no part in the works of Josephus, although he certainly knew of it both in his native country and in Rome. He reports in Antiquitates on the work and fate of John the Baptist, and on the violent death of James the brother of Jesus, “the so-called Christ.” However, he mentions them not for their own sake but because their fate exposes the men who did away with them. There is also a remark concerning a certain Jesus, the so- called Testimonium Flavianum. However, because Jesus is there called the Christ without qualification, its genuineness is disputed, and today it is generally viewed as having been at least revised by Christian hands.
- Feldman, L. H. Josephus and Modern Scholarship (1937-1980). Berlin and New York, 1984.
- Rengstorf, K. H., ed. A Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus, 4 vols. Leiden, 1973-1983.
- Schreckenberg, H. Bibliographie zu Flavius Josephus. Leiden, 1968.
- . Bibliographie zu Flavius Josephus: Supplementband mit Gesamtregister. Leiden, 1979.
KARL HEINRICH RENGSTORF