Josephus Flavius

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

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Josephus the "Prophet"

When the Romans captured Jotapata in July of 67, Josephus "helped by divine providence," escaped to a cave with 40 others. JW describes the exact fulfillment of his prediction that Jotapata would fall on the 47th day of the siege and his dreams of the coming calamities facing the Jews and the fortune of the Romans. The other occupants of the cave committed themselves to die free and threatened Josephus, who was considering surrender.

Josephus convinced the others to participate in a suicide lottery where each person would kill the next. Providentially, Josephus and one other were the last to draw lots, and Josephus convinced him to join him in surrendering to the Romans. Upon arriving in Vespasian's camp, Josephus prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor.

Josephus remained in Roman custody for the next two years until his prophecy came true and Vespasian was acclaimed emperor (June 69). At that point, Vespasian released Josephus from his chains, and Titus was put in charge of the siege of Jerusalem. Again, Josephus took on the mantle of the prophet, imagining himself as Jeremiah, counseling the besieged occupants of Jerusalem to submit to the great power:

"When the king of Babylon laid siege to this city, and King Zedekiah--ignoring Jeremiah's prophecies--nevertheless gave battle, Jeremiah was taken prisoner and saw the city and the Temple destroyed. But Zedekiah was moderate compared to your leaders! Jeremiah shouted out that God hated their sinful behavior against Him, and would be taken captive unless they surrendered. But neither the king nor the people put Jeremiah to death. But you! … When I plead with you to save yourselves, you hurl insults and stones at me. You are furious at being reminded of your crimes which you commit day after day!" (JW 3.391-393).

Needless to say, Josephus' calls for surrender were not heeded, and, in August, 70 C.E., Jerusalem fell.

Josephus the Historian

Titus brought Josephus to Rome, where he lived the remainder of his life. Vespasian granted Josephus Roman citizenship and provided him with a pension and a large estate in Judea. During the reign of Titus, Josephus composed the JW, which begins with the war against Antiochus Epiphanes and concludes with the fall of Jerusalem (book 6) and its aftermath (book 7).

JW was written under imperial sponsorship, and so it is not surprising that blame for the tragic destruction of Jerusalem is deflected from the Romans. Instead, responsibility is placed upon progressively worse Roman administration of Judea, which encouraged a small group of reckless Jewish revolutionaries and did not quell the simmering ethnic tensions.

The 20 volume Antiquities of the Jews (AJ) retells all of Jewish history until the year 66 C.E., but also maintains a structural focus on Jerusalem, whose destruction in 586 concludes book 10, and whose destruction in 70 C.E. is predicted in book 20. AJ, which was probably written under Domitian in the 90s, presents a defense of Judaism, attesting to the antiquity, wisdom, and purity of Jewish tradition.

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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.