Josephus Flavius

Josephus Flavius both participated in and wrote the history of the Jewish interaction with Rome.

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Josephus Flavius wrote a history called the Jewish War Against the Romans (JW), the massive Antiquities of the Jews (AJ), which retells Jewish history from its origins up until the war, an autobiography (Life), and a theological defense of Judaism called Against Apion (AA). Josephus played a major role in the first Jewish revolt, and thus, both JW and Life—though on many points contradicting each other or having markedly different perspectives--are fascinating (if self-aggrandizing) resources for retelling his life story. As a historian, his writings are both entertaining and of questionable objectivity--inasmuch as he is also a key player in the story he tells.

Josephus the Prodigy

According to his autobiography, Joseph ben Mattityahu was born in Jerusalem in 3Josephus Flavius7-38 C.E. into an aristocratic, priestly family; his great-grandfather on his mother's side was the Hasmonean high priest Jonathan. He describes himself as a child prodigy, capable, at age 14, of clarifying details of the law to the leading priests of the city.   

Josephus then relates his study of the different Jewish schools of thought (the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees), his period of discipleship in the wilderness, and his decision to become a Pharisee (Life 11-12).

At the age of twenty-six, Josephus went to Rome and successfully advocated before Nero for the release of some priests who had been arrested and sent to Rome on what he describes as an insignificant charge. Upon returning from Rome, Josephus became aware of popular hostility against the misrule of the Roman procurator Florus; he claims that he tried to suppress the revolutionaries (Life 17), but eventually, pretended to concur with them out of fear for his personal safety (22).

Josephus the General

In JW, Josephus describes a period of irresponsible revolution, which brought the entire nation unwillingly into war against the Romans. These initial conflicts culminated in the defeat of the Roman legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus. He then describes how the moderate Jerusalem leadership took control of the revolt and appointed generals with similarly moderate views; Josephus was himself appointed the military governor of the Galilee in the militarily strategic north of Israel.

According to JW's narrative, Josephus served as an outstanding and ingenious general. Throughout, Josephus describes himself as a daring, inventive, and beloved leader. He even claims that when the Roman general Vespasian found out that Josephus had slipped into the besieged town of Jotapata, the general regarded it as a great piece of luck since "the most able of his enemies had put himself into a noose" (JW 3.143). Josephus describes with abundant self-admiration his clever defense of Jotapata, including pouring boiling oil on the soldiers and boiled fenugreek on the Roman gangplanks to make the soldiers slip.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.