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September 8, 2016

Flavius Josephus: Hellenized Moderate or Traitor to the Jews?

Roman soldiers raid Jerusalem

Who was Flavius Josephus? Some would say a moderate, others might say he was a traitor to the Jewish people. Upon examination, the lines between the two become blurred. Josephus was born Josephus ben Matthias in the year 37 CE to a lineage that he claimed was of priestly Judaic origin. So why do so many now refer to him as Flavius Josephus? Why did he bear the first name of a Roman emperor? It appears that Josephus’ identity was much more complex than being simply a Roman or a Jew.

In Josephus’ autobiography, he did not hesitate to sing the praises of his own accomplishments and nobility. He said of himself in his introductory paragraphs that “he was commended by all for his passion for learning,” and that even the high priests themselves would come to ask for his teaching on Judaic law at the mere age of fourteen. 1 According to Josephus, his desire to learn did not end there. At the age of sixteen, Josephus began to study the three major sects of Judaism (the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes) in order to become contented with one of the three sect’s philosophies and customs. However, Josephus found himself contented with none of them, but rather was drawn into the Judean desert by a man named Banus.

Bust of Flavius Josephus
Bust of Flavius Josephus | from

Banus was an ascetic Jewish philosopher who wandered the desert wearing clothing fashioned from the leaves of plants. He ate nothing but that which he acquired by foraging, bathed with cold water, and preserved his chastity. For reasons not offered by Josephus, he became attracted to Banus’s way of life, and so followed Banus in his ways for three years.2

Upon his return to Jerusalem from the desert, what Josephus began to do exactly has been disputed, at least in the particulars. Some have interpreted his autobiography, The Life of Flavius Josephus, as saying he became a Pharisee, while other scholars, such as Steve Mason, interpret the language simply as meaning that he lived among the Pharisees and worked for them.3 Despite disagreement, it is clear that Josephus was at least allied closely with many of the Pharisees.

Indeed, at age twenty-six, Josephus sailed by ship to Rome to request the release of some priestly acquaintances. According to Josephus, his friends were put into captivity for insignificant causes. On his voyage by sea, however, Josephus reported his first scrape against the threat of death; the ship he was on, holding some six-hundred men, sunk at sea. Josephus survived and was saved, along with around eighty other men, by a friendly ship. They were taken to the Italian city of Puteoli, where he met with his acquaintance, and friend of Emperor Nero, Aliturius. Fortunately, since Aliturius was a friend of Nero’s and his wife, Poppea, Aliturius was able to acquaint Josephus with Poppea, who became so charmed by Josephus that she freed his fellow Pharisees from captivity.4 Thus, Josephus had established himself as a mediator for the Jews to the Romans.

But when Josephus arrived back in Judea from Puteoli, rumors were spreading quickly of the Jews’ desire to revolt against the Romans. At hearing such thoughts, Josephus scolded the supporters of insurrection. Meanwhile, the Syrians, then under the authority of the Romans, were appalled by such a speculation, and they lashed out against the Jews violently. That being said, the Jews were forced to defend themselves against the governing powers.5

When the Jews were victorious in the first counter-assault against the Romans, they were excited by their victory, and thought that they could defeat and conquer the Romans. Around 66 CE, the Jewish Zealots began building up their armed forces in preparation for war. Though Josephus thought this was foolish, he hesitantly accepted his appointment as a commander in Galilee and began fortifying the cities surrounding Galilee. But Josephus eventually met his defeat at the hand of Vespasian, the Roman General, and was captured in the aftermath of the battle for Jotapata.6

Josephus and his troops, who had taken refuge in a cave, were discovered by the Romans. According to Josephus’ History of the Jewish War, Josephus had a close acquaintance under the dictate of Vespasian, who offered clemency from the Romans. However, Josephus was threatened by his Zealot peers that, if he were to take such an offer from the Romans, they, the Zealots, would kill him. But, Josephus argued that there was no reason to die when they could live under the Romans, who offered peace. Josephus’ peers were not convinced, and the only compromise they offered was a pact of collective suicide. It was then decided that, instead of committing suicide, each soldier would draw lots to determine who was to be killed first and last.7  Curiously, Josephus drew the last lot, and so was left alone with one other, who determined with Josephus that they should take the Roman offer of clemency rather than kill each other.

Thus, Josephus returned to Roman society peacefully, and after correctly predicting that Vespasian would succeed Emperor Nero’s throne, he was granted a special position within the Roman government. A deeply Hellenized Jew, Josephus ben Matthias took the family name of Vespasian and became Flavius Josephus. He wrote many histories, including The Antiquities of the Jews, The Jewish War, and The Life of Flavius Josephus. For some time, Josephus pursued a position as mediator between the Romans and Jews, but due to the distrust he had earned from both parties, his attempts were never successful.

Criticized deeply both in his own time and after, Josephus lived a life of leadership in an admittedly difficult time. Pressured politically and religiously to choose one side over another, Josephus found himself drawn to the rich meaning of Jewish tradition and philosophy, as well as to the rationalism of Greco-Roman philosophy. Distressed by the radicalism of the Jewish Zealots and desiring the peace and tolerance of the Romans, Josephus was a model for tolerance in a politically, religiously, and socially polarized Empire.

  1. Flavius Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, §2. translated by William Whiston.
  2. Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, §2.
  3. Josephus, The Life of Josephus, §21. translated by Steve Mason; See Introduction, §2
  4. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, §3.
  5. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 18:1:1:3-10.
  6. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, §37.
  7. Flavius Josephus, “The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem,” in Wars of the Jews 3:8:5.

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Recent Comments

Hector Garcia

Flavius Josephus seemed like a reasonable and intelligent man would forge a strong connection between the Jewish people and the Roman. He made the correct decision of living with the Romans, who offered peace, rather than living with Zealots, who seemed to be fanatics. I would regard Josephus more as Hellenized moderate rather than a traitor for many reasons. Overall, the article seemed to be well-written and well-researched.



4:17 pm

Lamont Traylor

Although I never heard of Josephus before, I do know about Greek mythology and Jewish history, so this article wasn’t completely foreign to me. The Jewish people seem to have had horrible things happen to them all throughout history, so I wasn’t surprised to see that they had trouble with the Romans in the article. I also learned about the zealots and their radical actions must have been what lead to the issues.



4:17 pm

Esperanza Rojas

Flavius Josephus seemed to be extremely egotistical at first with the first paragraph being about how he boasted about himself and how many other wise people went to him for advice, but as the article continued I found that he was fair and like any other man that wanted to get ahead in that time. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a traitor but I also feel like he didn’t fully respect the Jews as he should have.



4:17 pm

Raymond Nash Munoz III

Disputes of all kinds are hard enough, then try being thrown in the middle like Josephus and you end up with centuries worth of trouble and judgement. Now, I am not trying to condone any of Josephus actions because I do think he could’ve been more decisive on his side, but I also don’t hold his actions against him because Josephus did what any of us human beings would’ve done, he made the best of a horrible situation. Neither side was willing to trust Josephus, so Josephus had to look out for himself to ensure some sort of survival. Again, I’m not condoning his actions, but I am empathizing. Great article, with an extremely controversial topic.



4:17 pm

Dylan Coons

Personally, I disagree with the conclusion the author came to. Calling the Zealots a radical seems a little harsh. But, I have a huge bias of my own. I would say that Josephus is a turncoat, looking out only for his own personal gain, instead of the interest of his fellow Israelite’s. However, I understand the need to stay unbias, but I wouldn’t be able to help myself from condemning Josephus.



4:17 pm

Bianca-Rhae Jacquez

In the beginning of the article I felt as if Josephus was a little bit too full of himself. In the situation he was in actions are justifiable because anyone would’ve made the same decision that he did. Since neither side seems to trust him he went out and did what he thought to be the most beneficial to his survival.



4:17 pm

Tyler Reynolds

This was a very interesting article. Flavius Josephus was apparently a man who honestly wished the best for his people. His ability to be a diplomat for Roman-Judaic relationships was invaluable. Despite his noble intentions and acts, the was reviled by his own people, by his own community. Today we see similar scenarios happen, where persons who are ethnically Jewish and/or have family members that survived the holocaust, are called anti-Semites or holocaust-deniers by prominent Jewish leaders or organization just because they have different stances on Israel or other policies/issues.



4:17 pm

Ryan Estes

Before reading this article I had no idea who Flavius Josephus was. In my opinion, Flavius was not a traitor to the Jewish people. He simply chose to accept the Roman offer of peace instead of killing one of his fellow Zealots. If I was in the same situation as Flavius, I think I would have ultimately come to the same decision.



4:17 pm

Elliot Avigael

Josephus may have been a traitor, but he was an exceptional documenter of the Second Temple period. We wouldn’t know a lot about Jewish or Jewish history in the Roman era if it weren’t for him. I never knew much about his early life, only his works as a historian, so this was a really great read.



4:17 pm

Madeline Chandler

Such an informative and interesting article! Very captivating. Honestly, I am not familiar with the story of Flavius Josephus. I think it is so interesting he survived so many hardships. In all honesty, I do not know if I would blame him for his actions because he was trying to stay alive in a very difficult time. I do not know what I would have done. Regardless, he should have stayed true to who he was and not convert to being a Roman when we was not. I loved reading your article. Great job!



4:17 pm

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