Josephus Flavius

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

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Some historians see AJ, as well as Josephus' last book, Against Apion, as reflecting a heightened religious sensibility. For example, Josephus' occasionally describes the Pharisees with a degree of adulation absent from JW, and his standard for piety has become more law-centered and less Temple-centered (as it was in JW).

Josephus' Life was primarily written as a response to a history of the war written by Justus of Tiberias. Based on the arguments that Josephus makes, Justus apparently accused Josephus of causing rebellion against Rome in Tiberias, and of having behaved like a brutal, greedy tyrant. Hence, Life begins with Josephus' outstanding pedigree and his scholarly credentials and continues to attempt to refute Justus' claims.

Can We Trust Josephus?

A history in which one of the main historical characters is actually the author is rather strange, and raises the question of whether the historian is overemphasizing or distorting his own role. From a literary perspective, beginning JW well before his own arrival on the scene allows Josephus an opportunity to establish his reliability as an historian.

Josephus' accounts leave some questions unanswered. After the defeat of Cestius Gallus, why did the zealots hand power over to the moderates, and how did someone who claims he was against the war get appointed to the most important military position? Josephus' own answer (at least in Life) was that he had already demonstrated his tremendous ability, and had been recognized from an early age by the leadeJosephus Flavius' bookrship of Jerusalem.

Some scholars, however, conclude that Josephus was actively anti-Roman; certainly his actions in Galilee demonstrate that he took his military task seriously. Only later did he say that he had always been against war with Rome. Thus, the historian's retelling defends not only the Romans (only a few bad procurators) and the Jewish people (only a few radicals), but also himself (who did his duty, but recognized that "fortune had gone over to the Romans.")

Other scholars have identified changes in perspective from the earlier JW to the later works like AJ and Life. For example, AJ consistently presents the Pharisees as having the greatest influence with the Jewish populous. This, coupled with Josephus' own claim that he was a Pharisee in Life and the change in religious sensibility noted above have led some scholars to conclude that his support for Pharisaism developed during the 90s C.E.

They correlate this with the Judean political situation of that period when, they assume the rabbinic movement under Rabban Gamaliel began to gain influence. This argument, while reasonable, is based on a variety of unproven assumptions. Nevertheless, Josephus' claim to have lived most of his adult life as a Pharisee is probably suspect.

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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.