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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Josephus, Flavius

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JOSEPHUS, FLAVIUS. Jewish historian and general, born about a.d. 37 or 38, and died in the first years of the 2nd century.

1. Life . According to his Life , Josephus was descended from a Maccabæan house, and was thus of both royal and priestly lineage. He states that he showed great precocity, and that the learned men of his race used to consult him when he was fourteen years of age. He studied successively with the Essenes and the Pharisees, as well as with the Sadducees. For three years he was a student with a hermit named Banus very probably one of the Essenes although Josephus does not seem to have been admitted to the higher grades of the order. At the age of 26 he went to Rome to bring about the acquittal of certain priests who had been arrested and sent to Rome for trial by Felix. In this he was successful, and even gained the favour of the Empress Poppæa.

Not long after his return from Rome the revolution of a.d. 66 broke out, and he was at once swept into its current. Of the events which follow he has given us two accounts, the earlier in the Jewish War [BJ] , the later in his Life , written shortly before his death. These accounts are not always consistent, the latter showing more subservience to the Romans. In particular, he attempts to justify himself, and the Pharisees with whom he was associated, for participation in the revolt, by declaring that they judged it better for moderate men than for radicals to direct the course of events. The BJ , however, does not suggest this questionable proceeding on the part of the Jewish authorities.

The course of the war in Galilee, and particularly his own relations therewith, are minutely narrated by Josephus. His position was one of great difficulty. The Galilæans were grouped in various parties, ranging from those who opposed war with Rome to radicals like those who followed John of Giscala. The plans of Josephus and his fellow-commissioners from Jerusalem were further complicated by jealousies between the various cities, particularly Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Taricheæ. None the less, Josephus seems to have gone about the work of organizing the revolution energetically. He fortified the cities as well as he could, and attempted to introduce Roman military methods among the troops he was gathering. Whether he was, as he claims, too strict in the matter of booty, or, as his enemies claimed, too lukewarm in the cause of the revolution, complaints were lodged against him at Jerusalem, and an investigating committee was sent into Galilee. Various adventures then followed, but in the end Josephus seems to have been acquitted and to have gained a complete ascendency over his local enemies. John of Giscala, however, subsequently went to Jerusalem, and proved a persistent enemy, while the Zealot party as a whole seems never to have been satisfied with the attitude of Josephus.

The approach of Vespasian from the north at once showed how half-hearted had been the revolutionary sympathies of many of the Galilæan cities. Several of them surrendered without serious fighting, and Vespasian, after one or two desperate battles, was soon in possession of all Galilee excepting Jotapata on the east of the Sea of Galilee, where Josephus and his surviving troops were entrenched. Reinforcements the Sanhedrin could not send, and for forty-seven days the Romans besieged the city. During that time Josephus, if his own account is to be believed, performed marvellous deeds of strategy and valour. But all to no purpose. The city fell, and was razed to the ground. Josephus was taken prisoner, after having by a trick escaped being killed by his own soldiers. On being brought to Vespasian he claimed prophetic ability, and saluted the general as Emperor. For this and other reasons he won favour with Vespasian, was given his freedom, and took his benefactor’s family name, Flavius .

When Titus undertook the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus accompanied him as interpreter or herald. By this time, however, he had become hateful to the Jews, and could accomplish nothing in the way of inducing them to make terms with the Romans. When the city was captured, he was able to render some service to the unfortunate Jews because of the favour in which he stood with Titus. He was subsequently given estates in Judæa, and was thus enabled to live during the remainder of his long life as a gentleman of leisure, devoted to the pursuit of literature. He enjoyed the friendship of Titus and of king Agrippa ii. He was several times married, and left several children.

2. Writings . The chief importance of Josephus lies not in his career as a leader of the Jewish revolution, but in the works which have come down to us. Generally speaking, his writings are intended to disabuse his Greek and Roman contemporaries of some of the misconceptions that then existed concerning the Jews. To that end he does not hesitate to employ various ingenious interpretations of historical events, as well as legends, and even to hint that the Jewish records which he quotes have certain allegorical meanings to be disclosed in a subsequent work, which, however, he never wrote.

(1) The earliest of these writings is that Concerning the Jewish War , a work in seven books. It covers briefly the period from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes to the outbreak of the war of a.d. 66 70, and then narrates the events of the war in detail. It was originally written in Aramaic, but was re-written by Josephus in Greek. It was probably issued before 79, as it was presented to Vespasian. Because of the reference to the Temple of Peace as finished ( BJ VII. v. 7), it must have been written after 75. The work, while inaccurate at many points, and full of a tendency to present the actions of the Jews in as favourable a light as possible, is of inestimable value so far as its record of facts is concerned, and particularly for the light it throws on the state of society in the midst of which Jesus laboured. The book found favour with Vespasian and Titus and Agrippa ii.

(2) The Antiquities of the Jews . This great work in twenty books is one of the most important monuments which have come down to us from antiquity. It was published in the year 93. It covers the history of the Jews from the earliest Biblical times to the outbreak of the revolution of a.d. 66. It is particularly interesting as an illustration of the method by which the facts of Hebrew history could be re-written for the edification of the Greeks and Romans. It abounds in legends and curious interpretations. Josephus was by no means dependent upon the OT exclusively. He constantly refers to non-Biblical writers, mentioning by name most of the Greek and Roman historians. He used constantly the works of Alexander Polyhistor, Nicholas of Damascus, and Strabo. He probably also used Herodotus. The work abounds in collections of decrees and inscriptions which make it of great value to secular as well as to Biblical historians. The later books give very full accounts of the life of Herod i., for which Josephus is largely dependent upon Nicholas of Damascus, the historiographer of Herod. In his treatment of the Maccabees he is largely dependent upon First Maccabees. His account of the successors of Herod is hardly more than a sketch, but that of the events leading up to the revolution is more complete.

(3) The Life . This work was written in reply to Justus of Tiberias, by whom Josephus was accused of causing the revolt. In his Life Josephus represents himself as a friend of the Romans, but many statements are disproved by his earlier work, the BJ . This Life appeared after the death of Agrippa ii., that is, in the beginning of the 2nd century.

(4) Against Apion . This is a defence of the Jewish people against the attacks of their enemies and calumniators, chief among whom was Apion, a grammarian of Alexandria, who wrote during the first half of the 1st cent. a.d. It was written probably about the same time as the Life , and is particularly valuable as a narrative of the charges brought against the Jewish religion by the Greeks. It also serves as an exposition of the customs and views of the Jews of the 1st century, not only in Judæa but throughout the Dispersion.

3. The importance of Josephus to the Biblical student . As a contemporary of the NT writers, Josephus describes the Jewish background of Christian history as does no other writer of antiquity. The Book of Acts is particularly illuminated by his writings, while the chronology of the Apostolic period is given its fixed dates by his references to Jewish and Roman rulers. Josephus, it is true, does not add to our knowledge of the life of Christ. While his reference to John the Baptist is possibly authentic, and while it is not impossible that he mentions Jesus, the entire passage ( Ant . XVIII. iii. 3) can hardly have come from Josephus in its present form. At the same time, his narrative of the events of the Gospel period and his description of the character of the various rulers of Judæa serve to corroborate the accuracy of both the Gospels and Acts. As furnishing data for our knowledge of Jewish legends, parties, practices, and literature, his importance is exceptional. Even if we did not have the Mishna, it would be possible from his passages to reconstruct a satisfactory picture of the Jewish life of NT times. His few references to the current Messianic expectations of his day are particularly valuable. On the other hand, his comments upon and explanations of the OT are of comparatively small value.

Shailer Mathews.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Josephus, Flavius'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/j/josephus-flavius.html. 1909.

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