A Roman portrait bust said to be of Josephus[1]

Titus Flavius Josephus (37 – c. A.D. 100),[2] also called Joseph ben Matityahu (Biblical Hebrew: יוסף בן מתתיהו, Yosef ben Matityahu),[3] was a 1st-century Romano-Jewish historian and hagiographer of priestly and royal ancestry who recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the 1st century AD and the First Jewish–Roman War which resulted in the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

He has been credited by many as recording some of the earliest history of Jesus Christ outside of the gospels [4]

Josephus was a law-observant Jew who believed in the compatibility of Judaism and Graeco-Roman thought, commonly referred to as Hellenistic Judaism. His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75 AD) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD).[5] The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation (66–70). Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for a Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into 1st century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity.[5]



The Galilee, site of Josephus' governorship, in late antiquity.

Josephus introduces himself in Greek as Iōsēpos (Ιώσηπος), son of Matthias, an ethnic Jew, a priest from Jerusalem". [6] He was the second born son of Matthias and his wife, who was an unnamed Jewish noblewoman. His older brother who was his full blooded sibling was also called Matthias. [7] The mother of Josephus was an aristocratic woman who descended from royalty and of the former ruling Hasmonean Dynasty. [8] His paternal grandparents were distant relatives as they were both direct descendants of Simon Psellus. [9] Josephus came from a wealthy, aristocratic family and through his father he descended from the priestly order of the Jehoiarib, which was the first of the twenty four-orders of Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. [10] Through his father, Josephus was a descendant of the High Priest Jonathon. Jonathon may have been Alexander Jannaeus, the High Priest and Hasmonean ruler who governed Judea from 103 BC-76 BC. [11] He was born and raised in Jerusalem. Josephus was educated alongside his brother. [12]

He fought the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 as a Jewish military leader in Galilee. Prior to this, however, he was sent as a young man in his early twenties for negotiations with Emperor Nero for the release of several Jewish priests. He later returned to Jerusalem and was drafted as a commander of the Galilean forces.[13] After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat fell under siege, the Romans invaded, killing thousands; the survivors committed suicide. According to Josephus, however, in circumstances that are somewhat unclear, Josephus found himself trapped in a cave with forty of his companions in July 67. The Romans (commanded by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both subsequently Roman emperors) asked him to surrender once they discovered where he was, but his companions refused to allow this. He therefore suggested a method of collective suicide: they drew lots and killed each other, one by one, counting to every third person. The sole survivor of this process was Josephus (this method as a mathematical problem is referred to as the Josephus problem, or Roman Roulette[14]) who then surrendered to the Roman forces and became a prisoner. In 69 Josephus was released,[15] and according to Josephus's own account, he appears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70.

In 71, he arrived in Rome in the entourage of Titus, becoming a Roman citizen and client of the ruling Flavian dynasty (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus — see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was granted accommodation in conquered Judaea, and a decent, if not extravagant, pension. While in Rome and under Flavian patronage Josephus wrote all of his known works. Although he only ever calls himself "Josephus", he appears to have taken the Roman praenomen Titus and nomen Flavius from his patrons.[16] This was standard practice for "new" Roman citizens.

In 70 during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, the first wife of Josephus perished together with his parents. Sometime after, Vespasian arranged for him to marry a captured Jewish woman and ultimately she left him. About 71, Josephus married an Alexandrian Jewish woman as his third wife. By his Alexandrian wife, Josephus had three sons of whom only Flavius Hyrcanus, survived childhood. Josephus had an unhappy marriage with her and later divorced his third wife. At around 75, he married as his fourth wife a Greek Jewish woman from Crete who was a member of a distinguished family. With his Cretan wife he had a happy married life. His last wife bore him two sons Flavius Justus and Flavius Simonides Agrippa.

Josephus's life story remains ambiguous. For his critics, he never satisfactorily explained his actions during the Jewish war — why he failed to commit suicide in Galilee, and why, after his capture, he accepted the patronage of Romans.

Historian E. Mary Smallwood wrote:

(Josephus) was conceited, not only about his own learning but also about the opinions held of him as commander both by the Galileans and by the Romans; he was guilty of shocking duplicity at Jotapata, saving himself by sacrifice of his companions; he was too naive to see how he stood condemned out of his own mouth for his conduct, and yet no words were too harsh when he was blackening his opponents; and after landing, however involuntarily, in the Roman camp, he turned his captivity to his own advantage, and benefitted for the rest of his days from his change of side.[17]

Significance to scholarship

The romanticized engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston's translation of his works.

The works of Josephus provide crucial information about the First Jewish-Roman War and are also important literary source material for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and late Temple Judaism.

Josephan scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century became focused on Josephus' relationship to the sect of the Pharisees[citation needed]. He was consistently portrayed as a member of the sect, but nevertheless viewed as a villainous traitor to his own nation[citation needed] — a view which became known as the classical concept of Josephus. In the mid 20th century, this view was challenged by a new generation of scholars[who?] who formulated the modern concept of Josephus, still considering him a Pharisee but restoring his reputation in part as patriot and a historian of some standing. Some later authors[who?] argued that Josephus was not a Pharisee[18] but an orthodox Aristocrat-Priest who became part of the Temple Establishment as a matter of deference, and not willing association (cf. Steve Mason 1991).

Josephus includes information about individuals, groups, customs and geographical places. Some of these, such as the city of Seron, are not referenced in the surviving texts of any other ancient authority. 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, 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 Agrippa II, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and a disputed reference to Jesus (for more see Josephus on Jesus). He is an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism and the context of early Christianity.

A careful reading of Josephus' writings allowed Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, to discover the location of Herod's Tomb, after a search of 35 years — above aqueducts and pools, at a flattened, desert site, halfway up the hill to the Herodium, 12 kilometers south of Jerusalem — exactly where it should have been, according to Josephus's writings.[citation needed]

Manuscripts, textual criticism and editions

For many years, the works of Josephus were printed only in an imperfect Latin translation from the original Greek. It was only in 1544 that a version of the standard Greek text was made available, edited by the Dutch humanist Arnoldus Arlenius. The first English translation, by Thomas Lodge, appeared in 1602, with subsequent editions appearing throughout the 17th century. However, the 1544 Greek edition formed the basis of the 1732 English translation by William Whiston which achieved enormous popularity in the English speaking world (and which is currently available online for free download by Project Gutenberg). Later editions of the Greek text include that of Benedikt Niese, who made a detailed examination of all the available manuscripts, mainly from France and Spain. This was the version used by H. St J. Thackeray for the Loeb Classical Library edition widely used today.

William Whiston, who created perhaps the most famous of the English translations of Josephus, claimed that certain works by Josephus had a similar style to the Epistles of St Paul (Saul).[19]

The standard editio maior of the various Greek manuscripts is that of Benedictus Niese, published 1885-95. The text of Antiquities is damaged in some places. In the Life Niese follows mainly manuscript P, but refers also to AMW and R. Henry St. John Thackery for the Loeb Classical Library has a Greek text also mainly dependent on P. André Pelletier edited a new Greek text for his translation of Life. The ongoing Münsteraner Josephus-Ausgabe of Münster University will provide a new critical apparatus. There also exist late Old Slavonic translations of the Greek, but these contain a large number of Christian interpolations.


The works of Josephus translated by Thomas Lodge (1602).

The Jewish War

His first work in Rome was an account of the Jewish War, addressed to certain "upper barbarians" – usually thought to be the Jewish community in Mesopotamia—in his "paternal tongue" (War I.3), arguably the Western Aramaic language. He then wrote a seven-volume account in Greek known to us as the Jewish War (Latin Bellum Judaicum). It starts with the period of the Maccabees and concludes with accounts of the fall of Jerusalem, the Roman victory celebrations in Rome, the mopping-up operations, Roman military operations elsewhere in the Empire and the uprising in Cyrene. Together with the account in his Life of some of the same events, it also provides the reader with an overview of Josephus' own part in the events since his return to Jerusalem from a brief visit to Rome in the early 60s (Life 13–17).

In the wake of the suppression of the Jewish revolt, Josephus would have witnessed the marches of Titus's triumphant legions leading their Jewish captives, and carrying treasures from the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem. He would have experienced the popular presentation of the Jews as a bellicose and xenophobic people.[citation needed]

It was against this background that Josephus wrote his War, and although this work has often been dismissed as pro-Roman propaganda (hardly a surprising view, given the source of his patronage), he claims to be writing to counter anti-Judean accounts. He disputes the claim[citation needed] that the Jews served a defeated God, and were naturally hostile to Roman civilization. Rather, he blames the Jewish War on what he calls "unrepresentative and over-zealous fanatics" among the Jews, who led the masses away from their traditional aristocratic leaders (like himself), with disastrous results. Josephus also blames some of the Roman governors of Judea, but these he represents as atypical: corrupt and incompetent administrators. Thus, according to Josephus, the traditional Jew was, should be, and can be, a loyal and peace-loving citizen. Jews can, and historically have, accepted Rome's hegemony precisely because their faith declares that God himself gives empires their power.

Jewish Antiquities

The next work by Josephus is his twenty-one volume Antiquities of the Jews, completed during the last year of the reign of the Emperor Flavius Domitian (between 1.9.93 and 14.3.94, cf. AJ X.267). He claims that interested persons have pressed him to give a fuller account of the Jewish culture and constitution. Here, in expounding Jewish history, law and custom, he is entering into many philosophical debates current in Rome at that time. Again he offers an apologia for the antiquity and universal significance of the Jewish people.

He outlines Jewish history beginning with the creation as passed down through Jewish historical tradition. Abraham taught science to the Egyptians[citation needed], who in turn taught the Greeks. Moses set up a senatorial priestly aristocracy, which, like that of Rome, resisted monarchy. The great figures of the Bible are presented as ideal philosopher-leaders. There is again an autobiographical Appendix defending Josephus's own conduct at the end of the war when he cooperated with the Roman forces.

Against Apion

Josephus's Against Apion is a two-volume defence of Judaism as classical religion and philosophy, stressing its antiquity, as opposed to what Josephus claimed was the relatively more recent tradition of the Greeks. Some anti-Judean allegations ascribed by Josephus to the Greek writer Apion, and myths accredited to Manetho are also addressed.

Literature about Josephus

  • The Josephus Trilogy, a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger
    • Der jüdische Krieg (Josephus), 1932
    • Die Söhne (The Jews of Rome), 1935
    • Der Tag wird kommen (The day will come, Josephus and the Emperor), 1942
  • Flavius Josephus Eyewitness to Rome's first-century conquest of Judea, Mireille Hadas-lebel, Macmillan 1993, Simon and Schuster 2001
  • "The 2000 Year Old Middle East Policy Expert", a chapter from Give War A Chance by P. J. O'Rourke[20]
  • Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, by Joseph Atwill, Ulysses Press, 2005

See also


  1. ^ Plagnieux, P. 'Les sculptures Romanes' Dossiers d'Archéologie (January 2001) pg 15
  2. ^ Louis Feldman, Steve Mason (1999). Flavius Josephus. Brill Academic Publishers. 
  3. ^ Josephus refers to himself in his Greek works as Ἰώσηπος :Iōsēpos Matthiou pais (Josephus the son of Matthias). Josephus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.
  4. ^ Antiquities of the Jews Book XVIII Chap III point 3. USA, ND: John C Winston Company. p. 535. 
  5. ^ a b Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible, (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1985).
  6. ^ Jewish War I.3
  7. ^ Josephus, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary p.p.12-3
  8. ^ Nodet, A search for the origins of JudaJosephus (grandfather of Josephus)|Josephus]]
  9. ^ Josephus’ Lineage
  10. ^ Fergus, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135) p.p.45-6
  11. ^ Fergus, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135) p.p.45-6
  12. ^ Josephus, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary p.13
  13. ^
  14. ^ Cf. this example, Roman Roulette.
  15. ^ Jewish War IV.622–629
  16. ^ Attested by the third century Church theologian Origen (Comm. Matt. 10.17).
  17. ^ Josephus, Flavius, The Jewish War, tr. G.A. Williamson, introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. New York, Penguin, 1981, p. 24
  18. ^ Flavius Josephus and the Pharisees
  19. ^ Whiston, Dissertation 6
  20. ^ O'Rourke, P.J. Give War a Chance. Vintage, 1993.


  • Josephus’ Lineage
  • M. Fergus, S. Emil & V. Geza, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135), Continuum International Publishing Group, 1973
  • É. Nodet, A search for the origins of Judaism: from Joshua to the Mishnah, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997
  • F. Josephus & S. Mason, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary, BRILL, 2001
  • 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 1-56563-167-6 (Paperback).
  • Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary; edited by Steve Mason, 10 vols. in 12 Leiden: Brill, 2000–2007).
  • Per Bilde. Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: his life, his works and their importance. Sheffield: JSOT, 1988.
  • Shaye J. D. Cohen. Josephus in Galilee and Rome: his vita and development as a historian. (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition; 8). Leiden: Brill, 1979
  • Louis Feldman. "Flavius Josephus revisited: the man, his writings, and his significance." In: Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 21.2 (1984).
  • Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: a composition-critical study. Leiden: Brill, 1991
  • Tessa Rajak, Josephus: the Historian and His Society; 2nd ed. London: 2002 (Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 2 vols. 1974)

External links

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