Josephus as a Historian

 

 

 

In the ancient world the best kind of historian was believed to be one who was a witness to the events he described (1). In one sense this is true when it comes to Josephus whose first-hand experience of the Jewish revolt enabled him to produce a valuable historical record of those events. Josephus believed he was a very good historian. At the beginning of The Jewish War, he claimed that he was going to “state the facts accurately and impartially” and he attacked other accounts of the revolt; “Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge accepting baseless and inconsistent stories and hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it, while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record.”(2) The trouble is that, in spite of Josephus’ claims to objectivity and accuracy, The Jewish War is clearly biased, self-serving and contains flattery and vilification. (It looks like Jesus was right about the hypocrisy of Pharisees.) Because of what he revealed about himself in The Jewish War and his Life, we arguably know more about the life of Josephus than any other ancient historian (3) and we can see how his portrayal of history was influenced by his own experiences. Josephus’ participation in the events, which he described, was not only his strength as historian, but also his weakness. He was affected by those events and his goal as a historian was not simply to record the facts, but also to justify himself, the Jews and Rome.

Josephus was born into a priestly family with royal blood around 37-38 AD. He claims to have been so wise that when he was 14, “the high priests and principal men of the city” came to him to ask his opinions about the law (4). The good thing about Josephus’ bias and attempts to promote himself is that sometimes it is so blatant, our suspicions about his reliability are easily raised. In fact, Seth Schwartz concludes from Josephus’ mistakes in retelling Biblical stories in The Jewish War that “There is little evidence that Josephus had either comprehensive or accurate knowledge of the Bible.” (5)

When he was 16, Josephus says he tried out the three sects of Judaism, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, and spent three years living as a hermit under Banus in the desert before he decided to become a Pharisee at 19 (6). Tessa Rajak suggests this may not be historical because he could not have spent three years in the wilderness and still had time to try out the three sects (7). Josephus could have just made a mistake or been writing in round numbers. In The Jewish War, the sect, which he described in the most detail, was the Essenes(8), even though their role in the revolt was apparently negligible. His emphasis on the Essenes was presumably a result of his experience with them during this period.

When Josephus was 26, he travelled to Rome as part of a diplomatic mission (9). He may have spent a couple of years in Rome and returned to Judea on the verge of war. Josephus claimed to have been originally opposed to the war which he believed the Jews would lose and tried to persuade the rebels not to fight (10). This sounds suspiciously like an attempt to exonerate himself and downplay his role in the revolt, but it could still be true. The Roman military presence in Judea was relatively light and virtually non-existent in Galilee (11). The Jews may have underestimated Rome’s military resources, giving them false hope for success. Josephus had recently returned from Rome and had a more realistic idea of Rome’s military power. He must have realised that a revolt had little chance of success.

In his portrayal of the causes of the revolt, Josephus sought to blame it on a minority of Jewish revolutionaries and incompetent Roman governors, who, acting on their own, had provoked the Jews to revolution. By doing so he hoped to exonerate the Jewish people, as a whole, and Roman imperial policy of responsibility for the war (12). The causes were more complex than this and although Josephus clearly had his own agenda, there is some truth to his portrayal. In the midst of these events, it would have made sense to him. Most revolutions are instigated by militant minorities, rather than mass uprisings of the entire population. While Josephus blamed some Roman governors, such as Cumanus and Florus, he described others, such as Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Alexander in more positive terms (13). Josephus did not blame all the governors, but ascribed blame where he believed it was due.

Sometimes, ancient historians contradict each other, but Josephus contradicts himself when his different works cover the same period. The most serious example is his descriptions of his military exploits in Galilee in the early stages of the war. According to The Jewish War, generals were assigned to different regions, including Josephus to Galilee. Josephus makes himself sound like a excellent general, fortifying the cities and raising an army and training it along Roman lines. His position was undermined by the bandit leader John of Gischala (14). In his Life Josephus tells a somewhat different story. Galilee had not yet revolted against Rome and Josephus and two priests were sent there to try to persuade them to lay down their arms. Josephus went into greater detail about the internal fighting and factionalism in Galilee (15). Josephus’ Life was not so much a bios, but an apologia (16). It contains some biographical information, but it is largely concerned with defending his actions in Galilee, which had been attacked while he was living in Rome. E. Mary Smallwood believes that Josephus wrote Life to justify himself, it is less reliable than The Jewish War (17). On the other hand, Tessa Rajak thinks that Life is more credible (18).


The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews both cover the period from the Maccabean revolt to the start of the Jewish war. They contain contradictions which cannot be explained by Josephus’ agenda to justify himself. For example, in The Jewish
War Josephus writes that 10,000 Jews were killed in a riot after a Roman soldier exposed himself, while in Antiquities of the Jews 20,000 Jews were killed and they do not agree how the soldier exposed himself (19). Perhaps, Josephus was just careless and forgot what he had written the first time. Alternatively, by the time he was writing The Antiquities of the Jews, he may have come across more information and was correcting what he had written in The Jewish War (20).
H. Thackeray suggests that Books 15 to 20 of The Antiquities of
the Jews were not written by Josephus himself, but by his assistants, which could also explain the discrepancies with The Jewish War (21).

In 67 Vespasian invaded Galilee and besieged Jotapata where Josephus was. The
Jewish War claims that Vespasian was told that if he captured Josephus, all Judea would fall into his hands, so he ensured that Josephus could not escape (22). After Jotapata fell and his men committed mass suicide, Josephus surrendered to Vespasian. Josephus claimed to be a prophet and prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor (23). Two years later Josephus’ prophecy came true and he was released.

Naturally, modern historians express scepticism about the historicity of Josephus’ prophecy to Vespasian (24). It is reminiscent of how about 2000 years earlier in Egypt his namesake was released from captivity by the king as a result of his successful prophetic gifts. In 67 Nero was still alive and Vespasian was not an obvious candidate for emperor, so Josephus could hardly have guessed that it would happen. However, if Josephus’ prophecy did not take place, then something else must explain Josephus’ release and good treatment by Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps, he offered to betray the Jews and work for Vespasian and later invented the prophecy to cover it up, but that hardly seems to account for the depth of the imperial gratitude shown towards him.

Josephus would seriously have us believe that when Jerusalem believed he had been killed at Jotapata, the whole city mourned for a month. Then, when they found out he was still alive and had gone over to the Romans, they became more determined to fight in order to get him (25).

Another problem with Josephus as an eyewitness is that the emphasis is usually on his own experiences in the war. He describes the war in Galilee in detail, but not so much what happened in the areas where the other generals were assigned (26). The Jewish War is more like Josephus’ war memoirs, rather than a comprehensive history of the war.

Under their protection, Josephus had virtually become a “court historian” or “official historian” for Vespasian and Titus. He says that The Jewish War was approved by Titus who ordered it published (27). Josephus described Titus as first over the wall during the siege of Jotapata (28), leading the charge on horseback at Taricheae and mercifully sparing the population after killing the rebel leaders (29), charging into the enemy at Jerusalem (30), and rescuing the entire legion twice (31). This sounds like propaganda.

Josephus also claims that Titus did not want the Temple destroyed (32). However, this is contradicted by the Fourth Century Christian historian Sulpicius Severus who, perhaps citing a lost passage from Tacitus’ Histories, wrote that Titus wanted to destroy the Temple (33). Josephus even appears to contradict himself when he wrote in The Antiquities of the Jews that “Titus took the temple and the city, and burned them.” (34) It is possible that in The Jewish
War Josephus was whitewashing Titus’ role in the destruction of the Temple.

Josephus’ description of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple is the highlight of The Jewish War and his career as a historian. Like other Jews, Josephus was deeply affected by the Temple’s destruction which, in no small part, explains his condemnation and demonization of the Jewish rebels who had foolhardily instigated the revolt which led to its destruction. If the revolt had somehow succeeded and the Jews had won their independence from Rome, there is little doubt that Josephus, with his tendency to go with the winning side, would have sung the rebels’ praises.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus returned to Rome, where he was given Roman citizenship, a pension and allowed to live in an apartment in Vespasian’s old house (35). He began his new career as a historian. The Jewish War was published in the mid 70s. After the death of Titus, Epaphroditus became his patron, and he wrote The Antiquities of the
Jews, his Life and Against Apion.

Based on Dionysus of Halicarnassus, G.E. Sterling classifies Greco-Roman history into three general types; histories of individual cities or peoples, universal histories and histories of war. The histories of individual cities or peoples can be subdivided into four types; local histories, histories of peoples, archaic histories of peoples and apologetic histories (36). The Jewish War is a history of war and The Antiquities of the Jews is a history of a people, but there is also an apologetic dimension to these works. Likewise, Life and Against Apion are also apologetic in intention.

Josephus may have betrayed the Judeans but not Judaism. He did not recant or convert to paganism even though being a Jew living in Rome in the years after the defeat of the revolt could not have been comfortable for Josephus. Instead, one of his goals as a historian was to be an apologist for the Jews and Judaism. As already mentioned, one of the objectives of The Jewish War was to exonerate the Jews as a whole for the war by blaming it on a revolutionary minority. From the Roman perspective, the destruction of the temple represented the victory of the Roman gods over the intolerant and exclusive god of the Jews. However, Josephus did not believe that Judaism had been discredited. He sought to explain it in the same way that the prophets had explained the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar. God was again punishing the Jews for their sins by letting the temple be destroyed (37). Thus, Titus had not defeated Yahweh. He was Yahweh’s instrument for punishing his rebellious people (38).

Josephus’ longest work was The Antiquities of the Jews, a 5000 year history of the Jews from the creation of the world to the start of the Jewish revolt. Josephus later described it as a translation of the scriptures into Greek (39), however it is more like a reinterpretation than a translation. Josephus rewrote the history of the Jews to make it more appealing to a Greek audience by emphasising Greek values. For example, because the Greeks valued physical beauty, Josephus emphasized the beauty and handsomeness of Biblical characters such as Joseph, Moses, Saul, David and Absalom (40).

Furthermore, Josephus sometimes qualified his accounts of Biblical miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, by suggesting that readers can make up their own minds about whether or not they believe it (41). This does not necessarily mean that Josephus did not believe in miracles or that God intervened in history. He regarded the destruction of the temple by the Romans as God’s judgement on the Jews (42). Rather, it was a concession to Greco-Roman historiography which downplayed myths and the supernatural (43).

Josephus’ belief, which resulted from the destructive consequences of the Jewish revolt, that rebellion against foreign overlords was sinful and futile, has also shaped this reinterpretation of Jewish history. While the Bible remembers Jehoiachim as a king who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (44), Josephus said he “was of a gentle and just disposition” (45). Josephus’ more positive description is presumably because Jehoiachim submitted to Babylon which, in Josephus’ eyes, was the right thing to do.

When Josephus wrote The Jewish War, his knowledge of the Bible and pagan literature was limited (46). He may have had access to official military records. One historian, which he used as source, was Herod’s historian Nicolas of Damascus (47). This may explain why about 20% of The Jewish War was devoted to Herod’s reign even though it was largely irrelevant to the Jewish revolt 60 years after his death (48).

After the death of Titus, Josephus found a new patron Epaphroditus who is believed to have had a 30,000 volume library. Josephus may have had access to this library, since in his later works, his knowledge of Jewish and pagan literature has improved (49). His final work, Against Apion, was another apologetic work which argued that the Jews were an ancient people, which should make respectable in the eyes of Greco-Roman culture which regarded the old as worthwhile and valuable. In it Josephus made another valuable contribution by citing historians, like Manetho, and preserving passages which would have otherwise been lost.

Josephus was a flawed and biased historian. He exaggerated and contradicted himself. His personal involvement affected his objectivity. His agenda in writing history was not to simply record the facts, but to promote his own agendas, exonerating and defending the Jews and Judaism, condemning the actions which he believed had brought destruction upon the Jews, praising his imperial benefactors and making himself look good. His claims about himself are often hard to take seriously. However, sometimes when he is defending himself, his claims are still plausible and he could be telling the truth. However, the only historical accounts of the second Jewish revolt by Bar Kochba consist of brief passages in Dio Cassius and Eusebius written 100 and 200 years after the event respectively. When we compare them with the wealth of information Josephus provided in his eyewitness account, his faults as a historian and a person are clearly outweighed by his contribution to our knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish revolt.

 

Notes

(1) Bilde, P., “Interpreting Josephus” in Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome. His Life, his Works, and their Importance, (JSP.SS2 Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), p 190, Usher, S., The Historians of Greece and Rome (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1970), p 28

(2) Josephus, Jewish War, 0:1

(3) Schwartz, S., Josephus
and Judaean Politics (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990), p 1

(4) Josephus, Life, 2

(5) Schwartz, Josephus and Judean Politics, p 43

(6) Josephus, Life, 2

(7) Rajak, T., Josephus, The Historian and His Society, (London: Duckworth, 1983), p 34

(8) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:8:2-13

(9) Josephus, Life, 3

(10) Josephus, Life, 4

(11) Goodman, M., Rome and Jerusalem, (London: Penguin, 2007), p 34

(12) Bilde, P., “The Causes of the Jewish War according to Josephus”, Journal for the Study of
Judaism 10 (1979) p 182-184

(13) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:11:6

(14) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:20-22

(15) Josephus, Life, 7-73

(16) Thackeray, H.S.J., Josephus, The Man and the Historian (Hilda Stich Stroock Lectures, 1926), p 3

(17) Smallwood, E., “Introduction” in Josephus, The Jewish War, translated by G.A. Williamson, (London: Penguin Classics, 1981), p 17

(18) Rajak, Josephus, The Historian and His Society, p 147

(19) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:12:1, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:5:3

(20) Bilde, “Interpreting Josephus”, p 197

(21) Thackeray, Josephus, The Man and the Historian, p 105

(22) Josephus, Jewish War, 3:7:3

(23)Josephus, Jewish War, 3:8:1-8

(24) Rajak, Josephus, The Historian and His Society, p 19

(25) Josephus, Jewish War, 3:9:5-6

(26) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:20:3-5

(27) Josephus, Life, 65

(28) Josephus, Jewish War, 3:7:34

(29) Josephus, Jewish War, 3:10:3-5

(30) Josephus, Jewish War, 5:2:2

(31) Josephus, Jewish War, 5:3:5

(32) Josephus, Jewish War, 6:4:3

(33) Rajak, Josephus, The Historian and His Society, p 207-209

(34) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:10:1

(35) Josephus, Life, 76

(36) Sterling, G.E., “Historians, Greco-Roman” in Evans, C.A. and Porter, S.E. (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Illinois: IVP, 2000), p 501-504

(37) Josephus, Jewish War, 4:6:2, 6:2:1

(38) Feldman, L.H., “Josephus: Interpretative Methods and Tendencies” in Evans, C.A. and Porter, S.E. (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Illinois: IVP, 2000), p 597

(39) Josephus, Against Apion, 1:1

(40) Feldman, “Josephus: Interpretative Methods and Tendencies”, p 592-593, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:2:1, 2:4:2, 2:9:5, 6:4:1, 6:8:1, 7:8:5

(41) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:16:5

(42) Josephus, Jewish War, 6:2:2, 7:8:7

(43) Bilde, “Interpreting Josephus”, p 201

(44) 2 Chronicles 36:5

(45) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 10:7:1

(46) Schwartz, Josephus and Judean Politics, p 39, 43

(47) Thackeray, Josephus, The Man and the Historian, p 40-41, 46, 49

(48) Josephus, Jewish War, 1:11-33

(49) Schwartz, Josephus and Judean Politics, p 45-49

 

 

Bibliography

Books

 

Feldman, L.H, and Hata, G., Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1987)

Goodman, M., Rome and Jerusalem, (London: Penguin, 2007)

Rajak, T., Josephus, The Historian and His Society, (London: Duckworth, 1983)

Schwartz, S., Josephus
and Judaean Politics (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990)

Thackeray, H.S.J., Josephus, The Man and the Historian (Hilda Stich Stroock Lectures, 1926)

Usher, S., The Historians of Greece and Rome (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1970)

 

Articles

Bilde, P., “Interpreting Josephus” in Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome. His Life, his Works, and their Importance, (JSP.SS2 Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), pp 173-206

Bilde, P., “The Causes of the Jewish War according to Josephus”, Journal for the Study of
Judaism 10 (1979) pp 179-202

Feldman, L.H., “Josephus: Interpretative Methods and Tendencies” in Evans, C.A. and Porter, S.E. (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Illinois: IVP, 2000)

Sterling, G.E., “Historians, Greco-Roman” in Evans, C.A. and Porter, S.E. (editors), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Illinois: IVP, 2000)

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