ca. A.D. 37-100


Josephus was the leading Jewish historian of the Roman province* of Judaea. His History of the Jewish War, chronicling the revolt of Jews against Rome in A.D. 66-70, is one of the great books of ancient times. In it, Josephus described in dramatic detail the suffering of the people during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the burning of the Temple, and the tragedy of the forced exile of the Jews from Palestine.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Josephus was born into a priestly Jewish family and educated by the Pharisees, highly educated Jews who were devoted to maintaining the traditional beliefs and practices of Judaism. Josephus studied at a rabbinic school in Jerusalem, the holiest city of the Jews and capital of Judaea. He visited Rome at the age of 26 and returned to Jerusalem in A.D. 66, just before the outbreak of the Jewish revolt.

Many Jews were dissatisfied with the oppressive Roman rule, which had begun in A.D. 6. Previous uprisings had been unsuccessful, and Jewish factional strife was common. In addition, Roman governors were less competent than their predecessors. Josephus had personally witnessed Roman military might and tried to convince the Jewish nationalists that war with Rome was futile. When war erupted in earnest in Judaea and threatened to spread to other areas of the empire with large Jewish populations, the emperor Nero sent an army of about 60,000 troops to Judaea. The troops were led by Vespasian and his son Titus.

Josephus was in a delicate position. Since not to participate in the defense of Judaea might result in the wrath of Jewish nationalists, Josephus prudently accepted command of the region of Galilee. After a 47-day siege of the Galilean stronghold of Jotapata in A.D. 67, Josephus decided to surrender to the Romans. He believed that to continue the fight was useless, especially since victory was unattainable. The Romans had promised safe conduct to those who surrendered. Josephus tried to convince his companions to accept the Roman offer, but only one man accepted. Both his life and Josephus’s were saved, but Jewish nationalists regarded Josephus as a traitor.

Scholars still debate Josephus’s role in the Jewish revolt. Was he a commander under orders from Jerusalem to fight the Romans as he maintained in the History? Or was he sent to Galilee to keep law and order while those in Jerusalem decided on what action to take against Rome as stated in his later work, the Life?

In his History Josephus argues that it was possible for Jews and Romans to live together peacefully, and that the Jewish nationalists who insisted on fighting the Romans to the death were wrong. If the Jews had followed the moderate leaders like himself, Josephus argued, they would have been able to reach an understanding with moderate Romans, such as Titus.

By the end of A.D. 67, the revolt in Galilee had collapsed. Josephus was pardoned by Vespasian, who had seized the imperial* throne from Nero. He accompanied Vespasian’s son Titus back to Jerusalem as a guide and interrogator and took part in the siege of the city in A.D. 70. Josephus tried to help Jews who had been captured, but his efforts aroused the suspicion of both Jews and Romans. The city was destroyed and its people were sold into slavery. The remaining rebels, about 960, took refuge in the mountain fortress of Masada. In A.D. 73, they killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus accompanied Titus back to Rome, where he settled. He was given Roman citizenship, a new name—Flavius Josephus in honor of his patrons Vespasian and Titus—a palace, and money to live on. He dedicated himself to writing. His first work was the History of the Jewish War, published in 7 books between A.D. 75 and 79. His second work, Jewish Antiquities, consists of 20 books and recounts the history of the Jews from the creation of the world to just before the outbreak of the Jewish revolt. A third book, Life, while not an autobiography, is Josephus’s reply to the accusations that he instigated and organized the Jewish revolt in Galilee. Josephus’s final works are called Concerning the Antiquity of the Jews and Against Apion. The works constitute a defense of Judaism and its customs, laws, and rituals against anti-Semitic* writers, especially Apion, who had generated slanderous stories about Jews. Josephus’s writings were preserved by the Romans, who erected a statue in his memory and placed his books in public libraries. Early Christian historians held him in high esteem. Jewish historians regarded him as a renegade, and his name never appears in the writings of Jewish scholars. It was not until the medieval period that Josephus was given his due by Jewish historians.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire


Josephus's History of the Jewish War is a classic that rates very high among history books written during Roman times. His vivid writing style is shown in his narrative of the siege of Jerusalem. He describes the killing of children, priests, and old people without any regard for their age or helplessness. As for the destruction of the Temple, he writes, "The hill itself, on which the temple stood, was seething hot... the blood was larger in quantity than the fire... the ground did nowhere appear visible, for the dead bodies that lay on it."

* anti-Semitic referring to prejudice against Jews

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