Tragedy, History, Divinity
By Gabriel Blanchard
From priestly aristocrat to rebel general to imperial slave to eminent scholar, Josephus enjoyed one of the most dramatic careers of anyone on our Author Bank.
The first century AD was a volatile period in the Levant. To the Romans, who had conquered the region during the stormy transition from Republic to Empire, it was chiefly famed for its purple dye, its invention of the alphabet, and its collection of odd religions. One of these faiths was concentrated largely in the south of the Levant, though it had colonies all over the Empire and beyond. This province was under the mixed rulership of Roman governors and local vassal kings, and was named Iudæa after its principal and rather troublesome inhabitants, the Iudæi—or in English, the Jews.
A few years after one especially troublesome Jew, a wandering rabbi named Jesus, had died or disappeared (accounts varied slightly), a son named Josephus was born to an illustrious Jewish family. The priestly class were as powerful in Iudæa as the monarchy, if not more so; Josephus had ties to both. He received a high quality education and was assigned to serve as a diplomat at a young age, appealing to the Emperor Nero for the release of some Jewish captives.
But when Josephus returned home, a revolt had broken out. Resenting foreign control, both in itself and because of the outrage it represented upon the treasured temple in Jerusalem, a large fraction of the people of Iudæa waged a war for independence, beginning in the year 66. However, despite early successes and, in 69, a period of chaos in Rome itself, the revolt failed: Josephus was captured and kept as an aide by the Roman general Titus; besieged Jewish armies, rather than surrender, committed mass suicides; and the city of Jerusalem, including the temple itself, was ransacked and burnt to the ground. The Arch of Titus, which stands in Rome to this day, depicts the Romans carrying off spoils from the city (notably the distinctive seven-branched menorah used only in the temple). Disgraced in the eyes of many of his fellow Jews for accepting Roman clemency, Josephus turned from public service to scholarship as a career—and it is here that his great importance to history begins.
Firstly, despite the tarnished reputation he suffered among many contemporary Jews, Josephus is one of the earliest and most important sources outside the Hebrew Bible on the history of Judaism and the Jewish people. The Talmud (an ancient collection of scholarly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, second only to it in authority for most observant Jews) was still in the early stages of its composition at this time; the loss of the temple was not only a grief and a horror to the nation, but fundamentally changed the practice of their religion. Much was lost, and perhaps much more would have been, if not for Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. This lengthy work explored Jewish history, religion, custom, and law, in part with an eye to rebutting charges made by contemptuous Gentiles that the Jewish people were disloyal to Rome and unsophisticated compared to Greek culture. He used the Antiquities both to protest his people’s capacity for loyalty to Rome, and to demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition in general had as much ancientry, knowledge, and wisdom at its disposal as anything available to the Greek-speaking world.
Secondly, Josephus affords us a fairly rare, almost unparalleled thing: another perspective on the background, the figures, and some of the events of the New Testament. It is partly for this reason that his work was preserved—Josephus’ fellow Jews were, naturally, ambivalent at best toward a man who had lived more or less in the pocket of the general who plundered the temple, but Christians prized his histories as an additional source on “the life and times” of Jesus. Apart from the canonical Gospels, few contemporary texts tell us in much detail what was going on in the province at the time. Nor did the incipient Christian movement itself draw a lot of notice for the first few decades. Tacitus and Suetonius mention the inaugural persecution of the “superstition” under Nero in their histories of the period, written a generation later; Suetonius has an additional, tantalizingly vague allusion to the Jews in Rome rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus,” which some people suspect is an error for Christus; and, for the first century, that’s about it in Roman sources. To the historian of Christianity, then, as much as to the historian of Judaism, Josephus is a gold mine.
The Antiquities has proven a particularly interesting guide to the competing sects or denominations within ancient Judaism—and so, in turn, an invaluable guide to assessing the literature of the time. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were accidentally unearthed in the 1940s and ’50s, it was thanks to Josephus’ profile of the Essenes, a group not even mentioned in the New Testament, that their source could be identified with some confidence. He outlines the beliefs and general character of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots as well, and also described the preaching of John the Baptist, at even greater length than the passage he spends discussing Jesus. (Given both the book’s content and its popularity with Christians, it’s widely suspected that the wording of this passage on Jesus was doctored at some point by a careless or unscrupulous copyist.) Probably no one on our Author Bank stood closer than Josephus to this formative period of both Judaism and Christianity.
Even more than the Antiquities, his most widely read work is probably The Jewish War. This title refers to the revolt of 66-73, but Josephus goes much further back. He begins with the rebellion against the Seleucid Empire led by the famous Maccabee brothers: this not only established Jewish independence, but allowed them to purify and rededicate the temple, which the pagan Seleucid emperor had deliberately defiled (the festival of Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates this). From here Josephus follows all the drama of the first centuries BC and AD—from heroic Maccabee warriors to disappointing Hasmonean kings to lawless Herodian tyrants, and thence to the disciplined, efficient, pitiless Romans; and then, the war itself.
And yet, despite that war, which ruined everything the Maccabees had built (both figuratively and literally), there the Hebrews still were, and indeed here they still are. Josephus’ work is in many ways a record of tragedy, yet even so it bears testimony to the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
Thank you for visiting the Journal! If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in these profiles of Desiderius Erasmus and Francis Bacon, this discussion of the virtue of humility, this analysis of the idea of the world, or this essay from a high-scoring CLT student on the relation of Thomistic theology to Aristotelian philosophy. And be sure not to miss our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Published on 6th June, 2022. Page image depicts part of a tallit, the ritual shawl worn (in varying forms) by observant Jewish men for many prayers.