1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Josephus, Flavius

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21906811911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 15 — Josephus, FlaviusJohn Henry Arthur Hart

JOSEPHUS, FLAVIUS (c. 37–c. 95?), Jewish historian and military commander, was born in the first year of Caligula (37-38). His father belonged to one of the noblest priestly families, and through his mother he claimed descent from the Asmonaean high priest Jonathan. A precocious student of the Law, he made trial of the three sects of Judaism—Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—before he reached the age of nineteen. Then, having spent three years in the desert with the hermit Banus, who was presumably an Essene, he became a Pharisee. In 64 he went to Rome to intercede on behalf of some priests, his friends, whom the procurator Felix had sent to render account to Caesar for some insignificant offence. Making friends with Alityrus, a Jewish actor, who was a favourite of Nero, Josephus obtained an introduction to the empress Poppaea and effected his purpose by her help. His visit to Rome enabled him to speak from personal experience of the power of the Empire, when he expostulated with the revolutionary Jews on his return to Palestine. But they refused to listen; and he, with all the Jews who did not fly the country, was dragged into the great rebellion of 66. In company with two other priests, Josephus was sent to Galilee under orders (he says) to persuade the ill-affected to lay down their arms and return to the Roman allegiance, which the Jewish aristocracy had not yet renounced. Having sent his two companions back to Jerusalem, he organized the forces at his disposal, and made arrangements for the government of his province. His obvious desire to preserve law and order excited the hostility of John of Giscala, who endeavoured vainly to remove him as a traitor to the national cause by inciting the Galileans to kill him and by persuading the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem to recall him.

In the spring of 67 the Jewish troops, whom Josephus had drilled so sedulously, fled before the Roman forces of Vespasian and Titus. He sent to Jerusalem for reinforcements, but none came. With the stragglers who remained, he held a stronghold against the Romans by dint of his native cunning, and finally, when the place was taken, persuaded forty men, who shared his hiding-place, to kill one another in turn rather than commit suicide. They agreed to cast lots, on the understanding that the second should kill the first and so on. Josephus providentially drew the last lot and prevailed upon his destined victim to live. Their companions were all dead in accordance with the compact; but Josephus at any rate survived and surrendered. Being led before Vespasian, he was inspired to prophesy that Vespasian would become emperor. In consequence of the prophecy his life was spared, but he was kept close prisoner for two years. When his prophecy was fulfilled he was liberated, assumed the name of Flavius, the family name of Vespasian, and accompanied his patron to Alexandria. There he took another wife, as the Jewess allotted him by Vespasian after the fall of Caesarea had forsaken him, and returned to attend Titus and to act as intermediary between him and the Jews who still held Jerusalem. His efforts in this capacity failed; but when the city was stormed (70) Titus granted him whatever boon he might ask. So he secured the lives of some free men who had been taken and (by the gift of Titus) certain sacred books. After this he repaired to Rome and received one of the pensions, which Vespasian (according to Suetonius) was the first to bestow upon Latin and Greek writers. He was also made a Roman citizen and received an estate in Judaea. Thenceforward he devoted himself to literary work under the patronage of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. As he mentions the death of Agrippa II. it is probable that he lived into the 2nd century; but the date of Agrippa’s death has been challenged and, if his patron Epaphroditus may be identified with Nero’s freedman, it is possible that Josephus may have been involved in his fall and perished under Domitian in 95.

Works.—1. The Jewish War (Περὶ τοῦ Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου), the oldest of Josephus’ extant writings, was written towards the end of Vespasian’s reign (69–79). The Aramaic original has not been preserved; but the Greek version was prepared by Josephus himself in conjunction with competent Greek scholars. Its purpose in all probability was, in the first instance, to exhibit to the Babylonian Jews the overwhelming power of Rome and so to deter them from repeating the futile revolt of the Jews of Palestine. Of its seven books, the first two survey the history of the Jews from the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes to the outbreak of war in 67, and here Josephus relies upon some such general history as that of Nicolaus of Damascus. The rest deals with the events of the war (67–73) which fell more or less within his own knowledge. Vespasian, Titus and Agrippa II. testified (he tells us) to his accuracy. Representatives of the Zealots would probably have protested against his pro-Roman prejudices.

2. The Jewish Antiquities (Ἰουδαϊκὴ Ἀρχαιολογία) covers in twenty books the history of the Jews from the creation of the world to the outbreak of the war with Rome. It was finished in the thirteenth year of Domitian (93). Its purpose was to glorify the Jewish nation in the eyes of the Roman world. In the part covered by the books of the Bible Josephus follows them, and that mainly, if not entirely as they are translated into Greek by the Seventy (the Septuagint version). Being a Pharisee, he sometimes introduces traditions of the Elders, which are either inferences from, or embroideries of, the biblical narrative. Sometimes, also, he gives proof of some knowledge of Hebrew and supplements his scriptural authorities, which include 1 Esdras, from general Greek histories. For the later period he uses the Greek Esther, with its additions, 1 Maccabees, Polybius, Strabo and Nicolaus of Damascus. But towards the end he confesses that he has grown weary of his task, and his history becomes meagre. The work contains accounts of John the Baptist and Jesus, which may account for the fact that Josephus’ writings were rescued from oblivion by the Christians. But the description of Jesus as “a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man,” can hardly be genuine, and the assertion “this was the Christ” is equally doubtful, unless it be assumed that the Greek word Christos had become technical in the sense of false-Christ or false-prophet among non-Christian Jews.

3. Josephus wrote a narrative of his own Life in order to defend himself against the accusation brought by his enemy Justus of Tiberias to the effect that he had really been the cause of the Jewish rebellion. In his defence Josephus departs from the facts as narrated in the Jewish War and represents himself as a partisan of Rome and, therefore, as a traitor to his own people from the beginning.

4. The two books Against Apion are a defence or apology directed against current misrepresentations of the Jews. Earlier titles are Concerning the Antiquity of the Jews or Against the Greeks. Apion was the leader of the Alexandrine embassy which opposed Philo and his companions when they appeared in behalf of the Alexandrine Jews before Caligula. The defence which Josephus puts forward has a permanent value and shows him at his best.

The Greek text of Josephus’ works has been edited with full collection of different readings by B. Niese (Berlin, 1887–1895). The Teubner text by Naber is based on this. The translation into English of W. Whiston has been (superficially) revised by A. R. Shilleto (1889–1890). Schürer (History of the Jewish People) gives a full bibliography.  (J. H. A. H.)