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Josephus, known in his capacity as a Roman citizen as Flavius Josephus, was a first-century Jewish historian and apologist of priestly and royal ancestry. He survived and recorded the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. His works give an important insight into Judaism of the first century, along with a glimpse of early Christianity.
Little is known of Josephus’ early life. He was born about the year 37 and died about the year 100. He introduced himself in Greek as "Joseph, son of Matthias, an ethnic Hebrew, a priest from Jerusalem." As a Jewish military leader in Galilee, he fought the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73. The Romans invaded and killed thousands of the Jewish garrison following the siege of Yodfat. Under circumstances that are somewhat unclear, Josephus surrendered to the Roman forces who had invaded Galilee in July 67. He became a prisoner of the Romans and provided them with intelligence on the ongoing revolt. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both of whom later became Roman emperors. In the year 69, Josephus was released (cf. War IV.622-629) and, according to Josephus' own account, he appears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
In following year he arrived in Rome, in the entourage of Titus, where he became a Roman citizen and a Flavian client (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus - see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was granted accommodation in Vespasian's former home, land in conquered Judea, and a decent, if not extravagant, pension. It was while in Rome, and under Flavian patronage, that Josephus wrote all of his known works.
Although he only calls himself "Josephus," he appears to have taken the Roman nomen (surname) Flavius and praenomen (first name) Titus from his patrons, a practice that was standard for new citizens.
Around the year 70, Josephus divorced his first wife and married a Jewish woman from Alexandria, by whom he had two children: a son Flavius Hyrcanus and a second child, about whom nothing is known. Around 75, he divorced again and, by a third marriage, produced two more sons, Flavius Justus and Simonides Agrippa.
Josephus's life is beset with ambiguity. For his critics, he never satisfactorily explained his actions during the Jewish war—why he failed to commit suicide in Galilee in 67 with some of his compatriots, and why, after his capture, he cooperated with the Roman invaders. Hence, some have viewed Josephus as a traitor and informer and questioned his credibility as a historian, dismissing his works as Roman propaganda or as a personal apologetic, aimed at rehabilitating his reputation in history.
Nevertheless, he was unquestionably an important apologist in the Roman world for the Jewish people and culture, particularly at a time of conflict and tension. He always remained, in his own eyes, a loyal and law-observing Jew. He went out of his way both to commend Judaism to educated gentiles and to insist on its compatibility with cultured Graeco-Roman thought. He constantly contended for the antiquity of Jewish culture, presenting its people as civilized, devout, and philosophical.
Significance to scholarship
The works of Josephus provide important information about the First Jewish-Roman War. The works are also an important literary source for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and post-Second Temple Judaism. Josephan scholarship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became focused on Josephus' relationship to the sect of the Pharisees. He was consistently portrayed as a member of the sect, but nevertheless viewed as a villainous traitor to his own nation—a view which became known in Josephan studies as "the classical conception." In the mid-twentieth century, this view was challenged by a new generation of scholars, who formulated the modern conception of Josephus, still considering him a Pharisee but restoring his reputation in part as patriot and a historian of some standing. Recent scholarship since 1990 has sought to move scholarly perceptions forward by demonstrating that Josephus was not a Pharisee but an orthodox aristocrat-priest who became part of the Temple establishment as a matter of deference and not a willing association (Cf. Steve Mason, Todd Beall, and Ernst Gerlach).
Josephus offers information about individuals, groups, customs and geographical places. His writings provide a significant, extra-biblical account of the post-exilic period of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, and the rise of Herod the Great. He makes references to the Sadducees, the Jewish high priests of the time, Pharisees and Essenes, the Herodian Temple, Quirinius’ census, and the Zealots, and to such figures as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Agrippa I and II, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and a highly disputed reference to Jesus in chapter 3 of book 18 of the Jewish Antiquities. He is an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism and, thus, the context of early Christianity.
The disputed reference reads:
"About this time lived Jesus, a man full of wisdom, if indeed one may call Him a man. For He was the doer of incredible things, and the teacher of such as gladly received the truth. He thus attracted to Himself many Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. On the accusation of the leading men of our people, Pilate condemned Him to death upon the cross; nevertheless those who had previously loved Him still remained faithful to Him. For on the third day He again appeared to them living, just as, in addition to a thousand other marvelous things, prophets sent by God had foretold. And to the present day the race of those who call themselves Christians after Him has not ceased." From: Catholic Encyclopedia: Flavius Josephus.
List of Works
- (c.75) War of the Jews, or Jewish War, or Jewish Wars, or History of the Jewish War (commonly abbreviated JW, BJ or War)
- (c.75) Josephus’s Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades
- (c.94) Antiquities of the Jews, or Jewish Antiquities, or Antiquities of the Jews/Jewish Archeology, (frequently abbreviated AJ, AotJ or Ant. or Antiq.)
- (c.97) Flavius Josephus Against Apion, or Against Apion or Contra Apoinem, or Against the Greeks on the antiquity of the Jewish people. (usually abbreviated CA)
- (c.99) The Life of Flavius Josephus, or Autobiography of Flavius Josephus (abbreviated Life or Vita)
- The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged New Updated Edition, Translated by William Whiston, A.M., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987. ISBN 0-913573-86-8 (Hardcover). ISBN 0-565-63167-6 (Paperback).
- Per Bilde. Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: his Life, his Works and their Importance. Sheffield, 1998.
- Shaye J.D. Cohen. "Josephus in Galilee and Rome. His Vita and development as a historian." Columbia Studies in the Classical, tradition 8 (1979 Leiden).
- Louis Feldman. "Flavius Josephus revisited. The man, his writings, and his significance." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 21.2 (1984).