Steve Mason on Flavius Josephus
If we leave biblical and New Testament authors out of the frame, Flavius Josephus (37–100+ CE) was the most consequential ancient writer in the West. This claim is not provable by statistics, but a process of elimination supports it. Plato was big, Aristotle too. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius had their admirers, and every literate Roman knew Cicero and Livy. But Christian Crusaders did not take Plato into battle in the Holy Land. Thucydides was not rewritten in Latin and Hebrew versions, as Josephus was, amplifying his already huge impact. From the first to the twenty-first centuries, Josephus’ work has mattered to more people and more consistently than any other non-biblical text.
Does that mean that he should matter now? Nothing simply matters. Classical music, stock prices, and American politics matter to some but not others. Things that mattered to us when we were twenty might not at forty or sixty. To ask why Josephus matters is to ask, first, why he has mattered, and second, why he might matter from now on, which is not the same thing.
It is only worth discussing Josephus’ mattering if we know something of his life and writings. When he was born in Jerusalem (37 CE), to a member of the priestly caste named Mattityahu, an older brother had already scooped the father’s name and so he was called Yoseph, after a grandfather. Furnished with the gold-plated education enjoyed by Jerusalem’s elite, in both Hebrew and Greek literature, young Yoseph must have stood out. When he was just twenty-six, the city elders dispatched him on a delicate mission to Nero’s Rome. His task: to liberate three fellow-priests being held by the emperor. Nero, though he had already ruled for a decade, was only Yoseph’s age. After surviving a deadly shipwreck, Yoseph succeeded in his mission by scoring an introduction to Nero’s wife Poppaea. She won over her volatile husband, who had recently killed his mother and would soon dispatch her.
When Yoseph returned to Jerusalem, in 65/66 CE, he was distressed to find the city in commotion. Nero had recently sent a new official to coastal Caesarea with instructions to extract large sums from Jerusalem’s world-famous temple, using his locally recruited auxiliary force to crush any resistance. We cannot explore Nero’s reasons (his officials elsewhere had the same orders), or the origins of the war that this ignited in Judea. Suffice it to say that the common image of Judeans long struggling under oppressive imperial rule is hard to sustain. In Josephus’ view, Jerusalem had until then been the happiest of all cities under Roman rule. Now he conveys a universal sense of shock, grievance, and humiliation at the latest moves. But what to do about them? Although we have nothing to check it against, his portrayal of the range of responses sounds plausible. Some desperately armed themselves for protection. Indignant younger priests demanded the exclusion of foreigners from the city. Many prominent elders who had worked with the ruling consensus counseled patience and relentless diplomacy. Eventually, charismatic militants would enter the city with armed followers, in deadly conflict with each other.
Yoseph relates that he agreed with those who saw the futility of provoking conflict with Rome and yet felt duty-bound to put their lives on the line for the mother-city. Whether they liked it or not, they had to prepare for Roman retaliation. Some militants had murdered the auxiliary garrison in Jerusalem and others had ambushed a legion, led by the Syrian legate, in the pass at Beit-Horon. So Jerusalem’s leaders dispatched Yoseph, aged just thirty and with no military training but diplomatic experience, to prepare Galilee in the north. That was where they expected Roman legions to appear first, in the spring of 67. Presumably, they thought that Yoseph had the requisite skill set, if anyone did, perhaps to negotiate with the Roman legate, whom he would have known from the latter’s visit to Jerusalem the previous Passover. When a Roman army indeed appeared, but under the general Vespasian rather than the legate, numbering about 60,000 and created solely for the suppression of Jerusalem, Yoseph headed for Tiberias on the Kinneret Lake. A possession of the Judean King Agrippa II, who was with Vespasian as an ally, this resort city was not on the Roman warpath.
When Yoseph heard that the small town of Iotapata (Yodfat) in central Galilee was in peril from marauding legions, he rushed to aid the friends he had earlier made there. In spite of what he describes as brilliant defensive tactics, stalling Vespasian for several weeks, the town was overrun and he was arrested. The circumstances of Yoseph’s surrender and subsequent actions have tarnished his reputation, though for doubtful reasons.
As the town’s leading men planned a mass suicide in their cave hideout, he reports, he tried to dissuade them. Eventually, distrusting Roman pledges of safety but trusting God, he surrendered. The Roman soldiers were set to lynch him, but Vespasian’s son Titus (two years Yoseph’s junior) took pity and he was spared. Yoseph then forestalled being sent to Nero by quick thinking, which he attributed to divine aid. The hardened, fifty-seven-year-old commander in front of him, he blurted out, was the true emperor—not that effete young artiste in Rome. Would Vespasian not keep Yoseph as his prisoner?
Although the Roman deemed this obvious flattery to save Yoseph’s life, he agreed. When two years later he decided to enter the contest for power, after Nero’s death, he reckoned the exotic easterner’s utterance a valuable addition to the list of eerie omens he was compiling, to justify his attempt on power. Vespasian then freed Yoseph, and granted him Roman citizenship. That is when he acquired the moniker we usually call him by: (Titus) Flavius Josephus. He never refers to himself by that Roman-citizen name, but only as Yoseph, the eminent Judean who uses his platform to advocate for his people. We know the Roman name from writers who refer to him.
Those who incline to see Yoseph as a “turncoat” might ask what they would have done in his sandals. Join the suicide? Go to Nero and likely death? He was the only man we know about in the war who moved from a safe place to harm’s way. The main traffic ran the opposite way: Judeans who did not feel safe when their leaders welcomed Vespasian fled to Jerusalem’s mighty walls, delaying their final reckoning. Josephus ran toward the shooting and was in serious peril for prolonged periods.
After Jerusalem’s fall, Titus took Josephus to Rome (71 CE), where he soon began work on his masterpiece, The Judean War in seven volumes. Making the rounds of recitals by historians of the recent war that extolled the new emperor Vespasian, Josephus complained that these hacks were grossly distorting what had happened over there. This was probably inevitable. Vespasian had, after all, exploited the “foreign victory” as justification for his move against the emperor in mid-69. He portrayed Aulus Vitellius as the degenerate victor in a sordid civil war, disposing of those who had supported his predecessor Otho, whereas Vespasian and son were shining national saviors. Having defeated Rome’s enemies abroad, they alone could unify the people. They staged a triumphal procession, something authorized only for generals who had conquered foreign peoples and unavailable to Vespasian’s predecessors, to drive the point home. They followed up by rebuilding the city in monuments (including the Colosseum), inscriptions, and a flood of coins memorializing their destruction of Jerusalem.
Josephus opens his War with a description of the hostile atmosphere:
Those who were not present at the events, but are collecting random and incoherent tales through hearsay, are writing them up sophist-like, while others who were there are misrepresenting the events from either flattery toward the Romans or hatred toward the Judeans. Their compositions consist of denunciation [of Judeans] in some cases, encomium [of Romans] in others… They always denigrate and humiliate the Judean side.
His War is a response to this “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” trash-talk. Declaring himself a proud priest from Jerusalem, who alone witnessed the conflict at first hand from both sides, he will write a balanced account, but this means that he will expose the lies propagated by Flavian scribblers.
How does he manage it? Josephus writes War as a tragic history. His audience in Rome knows the end of the story, but he first dwells on the 130 years of happy cooperation between Jerusalem and Rome. This immediately dispels the impression that Judea had been a hostile foreign enemy. He walks through the tensions of 65–66 with a growing sense of foreboding. He also links up the Judean and the Roman civil wars, making the former a function of the latter. Nero’s last years were responsible for both. Both great cities were then plagued by would-be tyrants, violence from outside armies, and mass victims of compatriot brutality. Both saw their historic temples burn. So the Flavian war was not a matter of Judeans against Romans.
The single clearest theme in Josephus’ War, reinforced in countless ways, concerns the innately tough, masculine character of the Judean people, in sharp contrast to the prevailing ridicule. Here is just one example:
But the biggest concern [to Roman legionaries] was ﬁnding out that the Judeans had a fortitude of spirit that rose above not only civil strife but even famine, war, and so many disasters. They began to reckon that the charges of these men were unstoppable, that their joy even in distress was unconquerable.
Josephus does not deny that the legions were superbly trained and formidable in column maneuvers. But man for man, the untrained and ill-equipped Judeans put them in the shade with their daring and contempt for death. Whenever they maneuver Romans into small combat, they send them running in fear. The city of Jerusalem matches its people, with its layers of massive walls and fortress-like temple. It would have been impregnable, had the God who watched over it not chosen the Romans to purge it of the pollution caused by compatriot bloodshed.
Even while writing War (finished by 79 CE), Josephus had begun a longer prequel, the Judaean Antiquities. Claiming and naming a circle of interested foreigners in Rome who loved his work, Josephus offered them a, account of Judean law embedded in a history of his people from Creation until the war. The first eleven of the work’s twenty volumes comprise his brilliant paraphrase of the Bible’s legal and historical books. He removes doublets, enhances the story with speeches and moralizing reflections, and tackles historical and philosophical difficulties. The last nine volumes also corral disparate material into a coherent story. The long reigns of King Herod and his descendants provide the main spine for discussing the Hasmoneans and later events elsewhere in Rome and Parthia.
The work’s coherence comes from subjects and themes that Josephus announces in the prologue and pursues throughout. Key subjects include the peerless Judean “political constitution” crafted by Moses, after contemplating nature, and the ever-watchful divine supervision of human affairs. Themes include the fates of Jerusalem’s two temples, each occupying ten volumes, and the efficacy of Moses’ laws in connection with them. Each temple falls when Jerusalem’s leaders violate divine law. God ensures that those who observe his laws prosper while those who do not, Judeans and foreigners alike, suffer consequences.
The remaining three volumes of Josephus’ oeuvre include an autobiography appended to the Antiquities, which is a display of his character in times of crisis, and the two-volume essay misleadingly known as Against Apion. It is in fact a boisterous case for the antiquity and unmatched virtue of the Judean constitution.
Josephus mattered, from the moment he put down his pen and increasingly thereafter, for three main reasons: his uniquely expert account of the war that destroyed Jerusalem, the abundance of detail he provides for Roman Judea, and his identity as a Judean.
To understand why his account of the war was so valued, we need to ponder the stakes for three very different groups: Judeans, Romans, and the rapidly growing Christian groups. For Romans, as we have seen, a police action within a province, to suppress resistance to the outrages committed by Nero’s agent in Jerusalem, became a war when Vespasian arrived with a purpose-built army. The image of a shooting war was illusory, however. Most cities welcomed Vespasian before he entered their territory. After rapidly establishing garrisons throughout the region, with little resistance, he suspended his campaign for two years to wait out the Roman civil war.
This meant that Titus’ siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE furnished the only tangible proof of a “foreign victory” to bring home. The sham Flavian triumph featured the sacred contents of the temple, which Pompey the Great had considered out of bounds when he actually conquered Judea in 63 BCE. But the Flavians’ inscriptions, monuments, and coinage show how much they needed this questionable episode. To have a detailed account by an independent expert was priceless. Josephus did not write as their mouthpiece, as we have seen. But his defense of his people’s character and acceptance of Roman rule were helpful to the regime, and his work obviously blew competitors out of the water. Titus ordered that the Judean’s account become authoritative, without noticing or caring that it quietly undermined central Flavian claims.
For Judeans throughout the Roman and Parthian empires, Jerusalem’s destruction and occupation by the Tenth Legion were catastrophic. Even non-Judeans knew of the famed city as a jewel of the Orient and mother of the numerous expatriate communities. Thoughtful observers such as Tacitus, respected the Judean’s imageless God and magnificent temple free of statues. For those who had worshiped at the temple, if only sending annual contributions from afar and making occasional pilgrimage, the city’s destruction was a humiliation that savaged national pride and standing. For those in Judea, losing the very heart of biblical law, grounded in repentance and sacrifices prescribed by the covenant, was devastating.
The movement we know as rabbinic Judaism rapidly took root in Judea and Galilee. Experts in the laws explored ways of understanding sacrifice and worship that did not require temple and altar, even as they watched and hoped for the possibility of their rebuilding. The rabbis’ innovative prescriptions would sustain the Jewish people through two millennia. For them, working in Hebrew to expound biblical law, Josephus’ account of the war for Roman audiences, in Greek, was not especially useful. But the war itself was a watershed in Judean history, and Josephus would come into his own among the Jewish people a millennium later.
The third stakeholder party was barely visible when Jerusalem fell in 70. Unlike Judeans, Christ-followers were not a people identified with an ancient city, laws, and customs. On the contrary, they were disparate associations of people in Judea who gathered in private homes to worship their savior, Jesus of Nazareth known as Christ. In a world sensitive to conspiracy and suspicious of non-conformists, their secretive activity made Christians vulnerable to neighbors and civic authorities, who questioned their loyalty to civic institutions. The group’s origin in Judea was a further problem, for they seemed to worship a Judean without following Judean law and custom and creating animosity with existing Judean minorities.
For many Christians, the destruction of Jerusalem seemed a godsend. Their earliest surviving text declares God’s punishment of Judeans, for alleged opposition to both Christ and his messengers, and the transfer of divine favor to Christ-followers. When Titus destroyed the temple, forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion in that city, these Christians clutched it as proof that God had terminated his covenant with Judeans.
Josephus’ harrowing account of Jerusalem’s suffering in the months before its destruction was prized by Christian authors such as Eusebius, the historian who charted the new faith’s rise in the early 300s. Non-Christian authors had long since been leaning on Josephus for information about the East, and this prestige encouraged Christian use. Some scholars think that Tacitus’ Histories and Luke-Acts in the New Testament, soon after 100 CE, already borrow from Josephus. The Roman scholar Aelius Herodian, writing in the mid-second century, names Josephus dozens of times as the authority for southern Syria. Eusebius’ heavy reliance on Josephus depended on his prestige and authority. Christian writers were joining the party, to use his works in the service of their case for claiming the ancient Judean heritage without following Judean laws.
Josephus’ bold identification as a Judean affected the use of his works in various ways. For the Flavians as for many Christians, it was important that he was not one of them. This made him all the more credible as a witness to Flavian or Christian claims. They could extract what they found useful and reset it in their own frameworks, citing an authority who could not be suspected of sharing their biases. For some Christians, by contrast, Josephus’ Judean identity posed a problem. For if he was the truth-teller and keen observer that they needed him to be, how come he did not see the truth of Christianity? The Latin writer we call Pseudo-Hegesippus, in the later fourth century, decided he could eat this cake and still have it. Denouncing Josephus’ Judean alleged perfidy and perversions of history freed him to steal what he wanted and rewrite it as a thoroughgoing Christian history. Instead of citing long quotations from Josephus and supplying his own new lessons, as Eusebius had, this author simply rewrote the story so that its characters already supported Christian views. This work magnified Josephus’ reach enormously, if in corrupted form, through the Middle Ages.
And it finally provoked a reaction among Jewish communities. By the tenth century, the popularity of Pseudo-Hegesippus’ Latin confection prompted an unknown writer to compose a work in Hebrew that freely rewrote this work, using other ancient Latin texts and a Latin translation of Josephus’ Antiquities to reconstruct a properly Jewish history. Without Josephus’ original War for comparison, for example, it transformed the Masada suicide story into one in which Judean men died fighting. This was the Sefer Yosippon, the personal name (like Hegesippus) being a corruption of Josephus. Undergoing revisions, expansions, and translations over the centuries, it became a prized resource among medieval and also modern Jewish communities. Perhaps because Josephus’ Life was not available in Latin, people assumed that the author was a Yoseph in the story, surnamed ben-Gurion. That Israel’s first president, born David Grün, adopted that Hebrew surname is one example of the work’s impact.
In sum, the Flavians’ puffing of Josephus’ War first put him on the map. It was not long before Christians were avidly studying all his writings, beginning with the Apion. Their rise to political power assured that the corpus would be copied thereafter. Latin and Hebrew reworkings and translations secured his perch on the pinnacle of western culture. As the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment took root in succession, his writings became indispensable aids to the critical reappraisal of the West’s origins, free of Catholic or Christian gloss. Until the early twentieth century, nevertheless, Josephus appeared to be a friend to the Church, and it was not unusual to meet Christian men named Josephus or even Flavius Josephus.
Cut loose from their theological baggage, the reasons why Josephus has mattered still have purchase. Because of his initial promotion, he remains the most important source for Roman Judea and the war. His chosen role as Judean spokesman makes him still the unrivalled portal to first-century Judean life. But I close by proposing three new ways of finding value in Josephus, now and in the future. His corpus is almost like a new discovery in some ways. Only when scholars began to read him as an intelligent author, rather than a storehouse of data, did they begin to open these richer veins.
First, his War is among other things a meditation on the meaning of political freedom amidst great powers. While everyone in Jerusalem felt the same outrage at a Roman official’s actions, he presents those who advocated a fight for freedom as at best short-sighted, at worst seeking their own power to the detriment of the mother-city. They saw freedom only in the radical sense of absolute self-determination, which was a dangerous pipe-dream for Josephus. His views correspond to what we would call political realism, though the term is anachronistic. He was proud of his Hasmonean ancestry and the degree of independence that these brave forebears had carved out from the collapsing Seleucid dynasty. But he highlighted the skill of these revered ancestors in making judicious alliances. After their few heroic battles they had to become smart and supple diplomats. Even the Hasmoneans quickly approached Rome as a vital ally. Josephus and his group seek maximal internal freedom within the limits of the possible, sure that a drive for more will destroy even that.
Second, Josephus’ works offer abundant material for questions of belonging and identity, which are becoming ever more salient for us. As a Judean steeped in Greek literary culture who relocated to Rome, he was the embodiment of hyphenated identities, though his deepest commitments are clear. All of his works devote significant space to problems that arise from suspicions about loyalty. Judeans of Scythopolis defend their town against Judean raiders only for the citizens to massacre them as a foreign element. Judeans in Antioch see their hard-won modus vivendi with the citizen population wrecked by one of their own. Acting from fear, he pathetically demonstrates his Greek bona fides by throwing his fellow-Judeans under the wagon, falsely accusing them of conspiracy. Judeans of Caesarea and Alexandria, who have lived there for generations, become instantly vulnerable to murder when Jerusalem is in conflict. Then again, Josephus explores the situation of foreigners who want to identify themselves as Judeans and then face peril for disloyalty to their compatriots. In all of this, our author shows profound insight and psychological understanding, as he does when describing the fears of those facing death in battle.
Finally, whereas Josephus used to be omitted from the study of Greek and Roman authors, whether he was assumed to be too Jewish or the property of theologians, the past generation of research has followed earlier nudges to secure him a seat at both tables. The floods of insight resulting from this recontextualization are welcome and unstoppable. We hear much less now about how sloppy or inconsistent Josephus was, for not telling us everything we wish to know. That is because comparison with contemporary Greek and Latin authors exposes the rhetorical values that underlie all their compositions.
But it would be a mistake to conclude, “Ah, so he was a Greco-Roman historian!” Josephus chose the prestige of history as his medium of communication, but he regarded it as a Greek occupation. He could do it, better than most Greeks, but Judeans had something more secure at the foundation of their culture. This was the supreme gift of Moses’ constitution, which came with a precise account of the distant past. He looks on with amusement at the Greco-Roman preoccupation with fancy talk, contentious investigation, and persuasion, because a higher truth governs Judean lives.
In the complexities of Josephus’ works lie inexhaustible riches for the historian as for the humanist.
Steve Mason is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures in the University of Groningen. He spent much of his career at York University, Toronto, eventually as Canada Research Chair in Greco-Roman Cultural Interaction (History department), before crossing the water to Aberdeen (2011) and Groningen (2015). Mason edits Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary (Brill, 2000-), to which he has contributed three volumes. His monographs include Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees (1991), Josephus and the New Testament (2003, now in six languages), A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 (2016), and Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea (2016). Mason has been a visiting fellow in the Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Konstanz, EHESS Paris, and Wolfson and All Souls Colleges, Oxford.