Our knowledge of the life of Josephus stems directly from his own writings, four of which have survived. These works form the most important sources of contemporary information about Jewish religious life, history, and culture during the last two pre‐Christian and first post‐Christian centuries.
The life of Josephus (37–ca. 100 CE) divides itself into two parts: his dramatic and controversial years in Judea and his residence in Rome as a client of the Flavian emperors. He was born in Jerusalem as Yosef ben Mattityahu. While still a teenager he spent some time in the wilderness as a member of the Essenes, whose austere life and devotion to scripture Josephus found romantic. Later he classified himself as a member of the Pharisees. When the great revolt against Rome began in 66 CE, Josephus was appointed as general to take charge of the defense of Galilee in the northern part of the country. His preparations, however, were nullified when Vespasian overran the Jewish forces. This rout resulted, according to Josephus, from the martial superiority of the Roman army and the tactical skill of their commander. On the other hand, the detractors of Josephus asserted that the Roman victory derived from treachery by Josephus himself, and this suspicion of Josephus's patriotism would haunt him the remainder of his public life. Josephus and some of his companions escaped the besieged town of Jotapata and formed a suicide pact in order to escape capture by the Romans. Somehow Josephus managed to become the sole survivor of this scheme and then promptly surrendered himself to the Romans. He managed to win the attention of Vespasian by forecasting that the Roman commander would become emperor, and when this prediction proved true, Josephus became a permanent fixture in the entourage first of Vespasian and then of Titus. He played a prominent role in the eventual subjugation of Judea. Josephus spent the remainder of his life residing in Rome as a pensioner of the imperial family. He devoted himself to writing, producing his works under the name of Flavius Josephus. His first surviving work is The Jewish War, a seven‐book account of the great rebellion in which he played so prominent a part. Josephus exhibits his skill as a historian by beginning his account two‐and‐a‐half centuries before the actual revolt in order to portray the historical background of the unrest in Judea. His account of the war itself veers in two directions: he manages to defend and magnify the deeds of the Roman generals while simultaneously depicting the courage and heroism of the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem.
Josephus found in Roman society a considerable interest in Jewish history and in Judaism, and to satisfy this curiosity he wrote The Jewish Antiquities. This work lacks the skillful writing and dramatic excitement of the War but makes up for this lack in sheer comprehensiveness. The first ten of its twenty books are an expanded and embellished paraphrase of the historical writings of the Hebrew Bible. Josephus supplements the biblical narrative with Jewish lore known as haggadah as well as with selections from Greek and other sources relevant to the biblical story. In the second half of the Antiquities Josephus devotes a great deal of space to the rise and reign of Herod the Great. This section is largely dependent on the histories of Nicolaus of Damascus, a secretary to Herod.
The most charming work of Josephus is a two‐book tractate in which he defends the Jewish people and religion against their ancient detractors. Something akin to anti‐Semitism had reared its head in antiquity, and Josephus records some of these ancient slanders in this work, entitled Against Apion. Apion was a popular publicist whose writings featured a number of these calumnies, and the essay of Josephus was intended to be a reply.
Finally, Josephus composed an autobiography originally appended to the Antiquities, which now circulates independently under the title of Life. Much of what is contained in the Life was previously reported in the War. Yet there is some additional material here as well, such as Josephus's version of his dispute with Justus of Tiberias, a rival historian.
The writings of Josephus played an important role in the culture of the Radical Reformation. If Puritan arrivals to New England possessed a book in addition to their Bibles, it was usually Josephus.
See also Judaisms of the First century CE.
Ben Zion Wacholder