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