Flavius Josephus (27-100 CE), a Jewish native of Jerusalem and later a Roman citizen, achieved lasting significance for his writings about Judaism and the Roman Empire (The Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, Against Apion, and The Life of Josephus). His own life and writings illustrate the 1st century clash of the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds.
Although his historical works follow the methods of Greek historians like Thucydides, Josephus communicated the Jewish tradition of ancient history and the beginnings of time to the Greco- Roman world. As with Jewish histories in general, his observations of the passage of history emphasize a linear progression of connected events driven by divine providence. Though Josephus showed great interest in the accurate record of factual history, his ordering of events focused on the quality and readability of the story, often to the sacrifice of exact chronology.
Born to an aristocratic family within the Jewish priesthood, Josephus rose to prominence as a Pharisee and political leader in Judea, later receiving a military command during the Judean revolt. Josephus had been convinced of Rome’s glory and power since he visited the empire’s capital at age 26, and his own writings indicate that he felt neither convicted about the cause for revolt nor confident of any sort of victory for the Jews. Josephus was defeated and captured by the Romans at Jotapata in 67 CE, but he quickly made a powerful acquaintance with Emperor-to-be Vespasian by predicting his rise to power. Vespasian later secured Josephus’s freedom and his Roman citizenship and provided for him in Rome with a residence and pension. Once he was in Rome, Josephus began his writing. Little else is known about the latter part of his life.
In Rome, Josephus wrote The Jewish War, a commissioned account of the Judean revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, which received imperial endorsement from Vespasian. For this task Josephus drew upon his own experiences in the war, Roman military records, and his many contacts. Josephus was politically sensitive in his handling of the conflict, generally pointing all blame toward the Judeans who had stirred up the revolt.
In his next undertaking, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus composed his own version of Jewish history for explanation to the Greco-Roman world, covering a span of some 5,000 years. As an appendix to this account, he attached The Life of Josephus, a short autobiography that focused on his ambiguous role in the Judean revolt. Antiquities was based on the Hebrew scriptures as well as other rabbinic sources and traditions, but it also contains interpretations and inferences that were uniquely his. When dating events, he often used Jewish reckoning alongside that of other civilizations such as Egypt or Rome. As in Genesis, in Antiquities, time was said to begin with the 7-day divine Creation of the world, which became the model for a 7-day week. Josephus also recorded the origins of the feasts and celebrations that make up the Jewish year.
In his last work, Against Apion, Josephus defended his own accounts of Jewish history and offered an apology for the Jewish religion. Against Roman accusations that Judaism was a young and unimportant religion, Josephus argued that Judaism was in fact quite ancient and possessed a rich antiquity equal to that of the Greeks and Romans. In this work, Josephus sharply criticizes Greek histories initially but then uses them to help validate many aspects of Jewish history. Throughout his writing he confirmed his belief that God guided the events of history and that all things happened at the time appointed them by God.
Adam L. Bean
See also Creation, Myths of; Judaism; Philo Judaeus;
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