Josephus (37 – sometime after 100 AD/CE), who
became known, in his capacity as a Roman citizen, as
Flavius Josephus, was a 1st-century Jewish
historian and apologist of priestly and royal
ancestry who survived and recorded the Destruction
of Jerusalem in 70. His works give an important
insight into first-century Judaism.
Josephus, who introduced himself in Greek as "Iosepos
(Ιώσηπος), son of Matthias, an ethnic Hebrew, a
priest from Jerusalem" , fought the Romans in the
First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 as a Jewish military
leader in Galilee. After the Jewish garrison of
Yodfat was taken under siege, the Romans invaded,
killed thousands, and the remaining survivors who
had managed to elude the forces committed suicide.
However, in circumstances that are somewhat unclear,
Josephus and one of his soldiers surrendered to the
Roman forces invading Galilee in July 67. He became
a prisoner and provided the Romans with intelligence
on the ongoing revolt. The Roman forces were led by
Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both
subsequently Roman emperors. In 69, Josephus was
released (cf. War IV.622-629) and according to
Josephus's own account, he appears to have played
some role as a negotiator with the defenders in the
Siege of Jerusalem in 70.
In 71, he arrived in Rome in the entourage of Titus,
becoming a Roman citizen and Flavian dynasty client
(hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus -
see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was
granted accommodation 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 ever calls himself "Josephus", he
appears to have taken the Roman nomen Flavius and
praenomen Titus from his patrons . This was
standard for new citizens.
Josephus's first wife perished together with his
parents in Jerusalem during the siege and Vespasian
arranged for him to marry a Jewish girl who had been
captured by the Romans. This girl left Josephus, and
around 70, he married a Jewish woman from Alexandria
by whom he had three male children. Only one,
Flavius Hyrcanus, survived childhood. Josephus later
divorced his third wife and around 75, married his
fourth wife, a Jewish girl from Crete, from a
distinguished family. This last marriage produced
two 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. 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..
However, his critics ignore the fact that Simon Bar
Giora and John of Giscala, both extreme zealots and
great opponents of Josephus, who stayed in Jerusalem
and led the war against Rome in its final stage, in
a moment of truth, preferred life over suicide and
humbly surrendered to the Romans. At any rate, those
who have viewed Josephus as a traitor and informer
have questioned his credibility as a historian —
dismissing his works as Roman propaganda or as a
personal apologetic, aimed at rehabilitating his
reputation in history. Most Rabbinical commentators,
however, have found him to be an upright
Jew. For example his orthodoxy and
piety are concluded to be "beyond doubt" by the
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-observant 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
civilised, devout and philosophical.
Eusebius reports that a statue of Josephus was
erected in Rome.
Significance to scholarship
The works of Josephus provide crucial information
about the First Jewish-Roman War. They are also
important literary source material for understanding
the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and post-Second
Temple Judaism. Josephan scholarship in the 19th and
early 20th century 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 as the
classical concept of Josephus. In the mid 20th
century, this view was challenged by a new
generation of scholars 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. 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 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, 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. He is an important source for studies of
immediate post-Temple Judaism (and, thus, the
context of early Christianity).
A careful reading of Josephus writings allowed Ehud
Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, to
confirm the location of Herods Tomb after a
fruitless search of 35 years - atop of tunnels and
water pools, at a flattened desert site, halfway up
the hill to the Herodium, 12 kilometers south of
Jerusalem - exactly where it should be according to
For many years, the works of Josephus were printed
only in an imperfect Latin translation. It was only
in 1544 that a version of the Greek text was made
available, edited by the Dutch humanist Arnoldus
Arlenius. This edition formed the basis of the 1732
English translation by William Whiston which was
enormously popular in the English speaking world.
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.
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
- (c. 94) Antiquities of the Jews, or Jewish
Antiquities, or Antiquities of the Jews/Jewish
Archeology (frequently abbreviated AJ, AotJ or Ant.
- (c. 97) Flavius Josephus Against Apion, or Against
Apion, or Contra Apionem, or Against the Greeks, on
the antiquity of the Jewish people (usually
- (c. 99) The Life of Flavius Josephus, or
Autobiography of Flavius Josephus (abbreviated Life
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 Iudaicum). 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).
Rome cannot have been an easy place for a Jew in the
wake of the suppression of the Jewish revolt.
Josephus would have witnessed the marches of Titus'
triumphant legions leading their Jewish captives,
and carrying trophies of despoiled treasure from the
Temple in Jerusalem. He would have experienced the
popular presentation of the Jews as a bellicose and
It was against this background that Josephus wrote
his War, and although often dismissed as pro-Roman
propaganda (perhaps hardly surprising given where
his patronage was coming from), he claims to be
writing to counter anti-Judean accounts. He disputes
the claim that the Jews serve a defeated god and are
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 natural
aristocratic leaders (like him), with disastrous
results. He also blames some of the governors of
Judea, but these he presents as atypical Romans:
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 of their faith
that God himself gives empires their power.
The next literary work by Josephus is his twenty-one
volume Antiquities of the Jews, completed in the
last year 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.
Beginning with the story of Creation, he outlines
Jewish history. Abraham taught science to the
Egyptians, 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 biblical stories are presented as ideal
philosopher-leaders. There is again an
autobiographical appendix defending Josephus' own
conduct at the end of the war when he cooperated
with the Roman forces.
Josephus' Against Apion is a final two-volume
defence of Judaism as classical religion and
philosophy, stressing its antiquity against what
Josephus claimed was the relatively more recent
traditions of the Greeks. Some anti-Judean
allegations ascribed by Josephus to the Greek writer
Apion, and myths accredited to Manetho are also
- 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
- Per Bilde. Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and
Rome: his Life, his Works and their Importance.
- 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).
- Louis H. Feldman, Steve Mason (1999). Flavius
Josephus. Brill Academic Publishers.
- Josephus refers to himself in his Greek works as Jōsēpos Matthiou pais (Josephus the son of Matthais).
Although Josephus also spoke Aramaic and most
probably also Hebrew, no extant sources record his
name in these languages. However, his Hebrew/Aramaic
name has gone down in Jewish history as יוסף בן
מתתיהו (Yosef ben Matityahu) and thus he is commonly
known in Israel today.
- Jewish War I.3
- Attested by the third century Church theologian
Origen (Comm. Matt. 10.17).
- Josephus, Flavius, The Jewish War, tr. G.A.
Williamson, introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. New
York, Penguin, 1981, p. 24
- Hist. eccl. 3.9.2