Titus Flavius Josephus born as Yosef Ben Matityahu was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem; then part of Roman Judea; to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry. He initially fought against the Romans during the First Jewish–Roman War as head of Jewish forces in Galilee; until surrendering in 67 CE to Roman forces led by Vespasian after the six-week siege of Yodfat. Josephus claimed the Jewish Messianic prophecies that initiated the First Jewish–Roman War made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response, Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave and presumably interpreter. After Vespasian became Emperor in 69 CE; he granted Josephus his freedom; at which time Josephus assumed the emperor’s family name of Flavius.
Flavius Josephus Turns Coat
So Flavius Josephus fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship. He became an advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus; serving as his translator when Titus led the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Since the siege proved ineffective at stopping the Jewish revolt; the city’s destruction and the looting and destruction of Herod’s Temple (Second Temple) soon followed.
Josephus recorded Jewish history; with special emphasis on the first century CE and the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70 CE), including the Siege of Masada. His most important works were ‘The Jewish War’ (circa 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (circa 94). The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation.
‘Antiquities of the Jews’ recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Greek and Roman audience. In fact, these works provide valuable insight into first-century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity, although not specifically mentioned by Josephus. Josephus’ works are the chief source next to the Bible for the history and antiquity of ancient Palestine.
Born into one of Jerusalem’s elite families, Josephus introduces as the son of Matthias, an ethnic Jewish priest. He was the second-born son of Matthias. His older full-blooded brother was also called Matthias. Their mother was an aristocratic woman who descended from the royal and formerly ruling Hasmonean dynasty.
Josephus’s paternal grandparents were Josephus and his wife—an unnamed Hebrew noblewoman, distant relatives of each other, and direct descendants of Simon Psellus. Josephus’s family was wealthy. He descended through his father from the priestly order of the Jehoiarib, which was the first of the 24 orders of priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus was a descendant of the High Priest of Israel Jonathan Apphus. He was raised in Jerusalem and educated alongside his brother.
In his mid-twenties, he traveled to negotiate with Emperor Nero for the release of some Jewish priests. Upon his return to Jerusalem, at the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War, Josephus was appointed the military governor of Galilee. His arrival in Galilee, however, was fraught with internal division: the inhabitants of Sepphoris and Tiberias opting to maintain peace with the Romans; the people of Sepphoris enlisting the help of the Roman army to protect their city, whilst the people of Tiberias appealing to King Agrippa’s forces to protect them from the insurgents. Josephus also contended with John of Gischala who had also set his sight over the control of Galilee.
More About Josephus’s Doing in the Galilee
Like Josephus, John had amassed to himself a large band of supporters from Gischala (Gush Halab) and Gabara, including the support of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Josephus fortified several towns and villages in Lower Galilee, among which were Tiberias, Bersabe, Selamin, Japha, and Tarichaea, in anticipation of a Roman onslaught.
In Upper Galilee, he fortified the towns of Jamnith; Seph; Mero, and Achabare, among other places. Josephus, with the Galileans under his command, managed to bring both Sepphoris and Tiberias into subjection; but was eventually forced to relinquish his hold on Sepphoris by the arrival of Roman forces under Placidus the tribune and later by Vespasian himself.
Josephus first engaged the Roman army at a village called Garis, where he launched an attack against Sepphoris a second time, before being repulsed. At length, he resisted the Roman army in its siege of Yodfat (Jotapata) until it fell to the Roman army in the lunar month of Tammuz, in the thirteenth year of Nero’s reign. After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat fell under siege, the Romans invaded, killing thousands; the survivors committed suicide.
According to Josephus, he was trapped in a cave with 40 of his companions in July 67 CE. The Romans (commanded by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus; both subsequently Roman emperors) asked the group to surrender, but they refused. Josephus suggested a method of collective suicide; they drew lots and killed each other, one by one, counting to every third person.
Two men were left who surrendered to the Roman forces and became prisoners. In 69 CE, Josephus was released. According to his account, he acted as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, during which time his parents were held as hostages by Simon bar Giora.
Josephus Flavius Turns Coats
While being confined at Yodfat (Jotapata), Josephus claimed to have experienced a divine revelation that later led to his speech predicting Vespasian would become emperor. After the prediction came true, he was released by Vespasian, who considered his gift of prophecy to be divine. Josephus wrote that his revelation had taught him three things: that God, the creator of the Jewish people; had decided to “punish” them; that “fortune” had been given to the Romans; and that God had chosen him “to announce the things that are to come”. To many Jews, such claims were simply self-serving.
In 71 CE, he went to Rome in the entourage of Titus; becoming a Roman citizen and client of the ruling Flavian dynasty (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus). In addition to Roman citizenship, he was granted accommodation in conquered Judaea and a pension. While in Rome and under Flavian patronage, Josephus wrote all of his known works. Although he uses “Josephus”; he appears to have taken the Roman praenomen Titus and nomen Flavius from his patrons.
Vespasian arranged for Josephus to marry a captured Jewish woman, whom he later divorced. About 71 CE, Josephus married an Alexandrian Jewish woman as his third wife. They had three sons, of whom only Flavius Hyrcanus survived childhood. Josephus later divorced his third wife. Around 75 CE, he married his fourth wife, a Greek Jewish woman from Crete; who was a member of a distinguished family. They had a happy married life and two sons, Flavius Justus and Flavius Simonides Agrippa.
Josephus’s Scholarship and Impact on History
The works of Josephus provide crucial information about the First Jewish-Roman War and also represent important literary source material for understanding the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls and late Temple Judaism.
Josephan scholarship in the 19th and early 20th centuries took an interest in Josephus’s relationship to the sect of the Pharisees. It consistently portrayed him as a member of the sect and as a traitor to the Jewish nation—a view which became known as the classical concept of Josephus.
In the mid-20th century, a new generation of scholars challenged this view and formulated the modern concept of Josephus. They consider him a Pharisee but restore his reputation in part as a patriot and a historian of some standing. In his 1991 book, Steve Mason argued that Josephus was not a Pharisee but an orthodox Aristocrat-Priest who became associated with the philosophical school of the Pharisees as a matter of deference and not by willing association.
Josephus’s Impact on History and Archaeology
The works of Josephus include useful material for historians about individuals, groups, customs, and geographical places. Josephus mentions that in his day there were 240 towns and villages scattered across Upper and Lower Galilee, some of which he names.
A few of the Jewish customs named by him include the practice of hanging a curtain of fine-linen at the entrance to one’s house; and the Jewish custom to partake of a Sabbath-day’s meal around the sixth hour of the day (at noon). He notes also that it was permissible for Jewish men to marry many wives (polygamy).
His writings provide a significant, extra-Biblical account of the post-Exilic period of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, and the rise of Herod the Great. He describes the Sadducees, Jewish High Priests of the time, Pharisees and Essenes, the Herodian Temple, Quirinius’ census and the Zealots, and such figures as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus (found only in the Slavonic version of the Jewish War). Josephus represents an important source for studies of immediate post-Temple Judaism and the context of early Christianity.
The Tomb of King Herod
A careful reading of Josephus’s writings and years of excavation allowed Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, to discover what he considered to be the location of Herod’s Tomb, after searching for 35 years. It was above aqueducts and pools; at a flattened desert site, halfway up the hill to the Herodium, 12 km south of Jerusalem—as described in Josephus’s writings. In October 2013, archaeologists Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas challenged the identification of the tomb as that of Herod. According to Patrich and Arubas, the tomb is too modest to be Herod’s and has several unlikely features. Roi Porat, who replaced Netzer as excavation leader after the latter’s death, stood by the identification.
Josephus’s writings provide the first-known source for many stories considered as Biblical history, despite not being found in the Bible or related material. These include Ishmael as the founder of the Arabs, the connection of “Semites”, “Hamites” and “Japhetites” to the classical nations of the world, and the story of the Siege of Masada.