Print

The Life and Times of Flavius Josephus

He was a diplomat, general, and self-proclaimed prophet. Some would say that he was also a traitor. He is most famous as a historian.
By Earl Hunsinger

All eyes were on the Middle East. Its role in a stable world economy was crucial. The Jewish people were surrounded by hostile enemies, and a strong desire for an independent national identity was increasingly causing unrest. Like a pot beginning to boil, such feelings would soon culminate in outright war, with a tremendous loss of life as a result. Such statements could describe the situation that has existed in the Middle East at various times in its history. Perhaps you see similarities to the events occurring in that part of the world today. Thanks in large part to a man that has come to be known as Flavius Josephus, we have a knowledge of the events that occurred there in the first century, eventually culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Josephus was a Jew of royal and priestly lineage. He was born in 39 C.E. and given the name Joseph ben Matthias. He was a member of the religious sect of the Pharisees and, through his family, also had connections with the more aristocratic sect of the Sadducees. From an early age he displayed a talent for forming connections with powerful Romans. When sent with a group to Rome at 26 to secure the release of certain Jewish priests, he somehow formed a friendship with Empress Poppea, the wife of Emperor Nero.

After returning to Jerusalem, Jewish moderates sent him to Galilee to serve as a military governor general. This was a momentous time in Jewish history. The political faction known as the Zealots were inciting the people to revolt against Roman rule. In 66 C.E., according to Josephus, a splinter group of these Zealots, known as the Sicarii, captured the fortification at Masada and tried to hold it against a siege by Romans troops. When defeat seemed imminent, the entire group of extremist defenders committed mass suicide.

This was the political situation Josephus found himself in when he took command in Galilee in that same year. Although he might have felt that he could negotiate with the Romans, he fortified the cities of Galilee and organized the local troops based on the Roman model. He also had to contend with opposition from the local Zealots. Whatever his personal feelings about the war, soon he was in the middle of it.

In 67 C.E., Josephus and forty of his men were cornered in a cave during the siege of Jotapata. Following the example of the Zealots of Masada, the group made a suicide pact. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but somehow the others killed each other off until only Josephus and one other soldier were left. He then convinced the other man that it might be better to surrender after all. Here’s where Josephus’ life took an unusual turn. After being taken hostage by the Romans, he told General Vespasian that he was a prophet and that Vespasian was destined to rule the world. Vespasian, who was apparently somewhat superstitious, responded to this bold flattery by keeping Josephus his prisoner, rather than sending him on to Rome. Two years later, in 69 C.E., Vespasian became the new emperor, and Josephus had a new position, and eventually a new name. When Vespasian went to Rome to take over as Emperor, his son Titus took command of his father’s troops. Josephus advised him on Jewish tactics, and even risked his life in front of the walls of Jerusalem by calling on his people to surrender to the Romans.

He later was released, went to Rome, and became a Roman citizen. Josephus was so close to his patrons, Vespasian and Titus, that he took their name, Flavius. It was while in Rome that he wrote his historical accounts.

Josephus is an interesting historian because he was an eyewitness of many of the events about which he wrote. In some cases, he was a direct participant. Although there is no record that he was ever a Christian, it’s interesting to note that he recorded events that had been prophesied by Jesus Christ decades earlier. As an example, Jesus said that Jerusalem would be surrounded by a fortification of pointed stakes. Josephus says that Titus created just such a wall of stakes. In fact, he says that the countryside was denuded of trees for a distance of ten miles to build a fence of pointed stakes five mile long around the city. Jesus had also said that a stone would not be left upon a stone and not be thrown down. According to Josephus, "All the rest of the fortifications encircling the City were so completely leveled with the ground that no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited."

Of course, Josephus was not an unbiased writer. By his own admission, he was capable of deceit and cunning to advance himself. Still, his works offer a unique perspective on events that occurred in the Middle East some two thousand years ago.
By iBuzzle Staff
Published: 4/4/2008
Bouquets and Brickbats