Josephus: Jewish War Correspondent

As Bible readers move from Malachi to Matthew, they encounter many new ideas, movements, and institutions never mentioned in the Old Testament. In the Gospels, for example, they read about synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Romans. These words and many others never appeared before in the Old Testament. Readers also may learn that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek. They may wonder how such new ideas and changes took place.

The answers to these questions lie in an understanding of what Christians call the “Intertestamental Period,” while Jews generally refer to it as the “Second Temple Period.” It is that very important time from approximately 400 BC to AD 1. A popular book on this period by H. A. Ironside is titled The Four Hundred Silent Years. However, the period was anything but “silent,” since an enormous number of events took place giving birth to many movements, all of which serve as a rich background to the later events of New Testament times. The word “silent” refers to the fact that the prophetic voice was silent during this period—a fact recognized even by Jewish writers.

How can we discover what happened during these tumultuous yet fascinating years? Most the answer to that question lies in the most thorough source for information about this period of time—the writings of the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus.

There was a time a few hundred years ago when nearly every Christian household had, alongside the King James Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, the Whiston translation of Josephus’ works. The tiny print and the crowded format of that edition, however, still deter even the most determined readers today. The recent publication of a new, more readable edition of The Works of Josephus, edited by Paul Meier (The New Complete Works of Josephus), should prompt all of us to reexamine the life and writings of this man which are so important to our study and understanding of the Old and New Testament writings. In a manner that would probably please this “Jewish War Correspondent,” let us answer these three questions: (1) Who was Flavius Josephus? (2) What did he write? and (3) Why is he important?

Now just a tidbit to pique your interest. If we did not have Josephus’ writings, we would probably not have any courses on the Intertestamental Period or the Second Temple Period. That’s how important he is!

Who was Josephus?

Josephus was born in 37 A.D., just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was born Joseph ben Matityahu in Hebrew, from one of the best known priestly families in Jerusalem. His mother was descended from the royal Hasmonean family, more popularly known as the “Maccabees.” Josephus’ own description of his childhood reveals perhaps more of his conceit than the facts. “While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of letters; insomuch that the chief priests and the leading men of the city constantly came to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances” (Life, page 1).  [amazon 0825429242 thumbnail]

Josephus then investigated the teachings of the three main Jewish “philosophies” of his day—the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Pharisees. He is one of the main sources on the beliefs of these important groups. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Pharisees. After a visit to Rome, where he got his first but not his last, taste of Roman life, he returned to Judea at the beginning of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. He was soon made commander of the military forces in Galilee and began to prepare for the inevitable invasion of the Roman legions. In 67 A.D. Josephus’ forces were besieged by Vespasian’s army at a Galilean fortress called Jotapata. Rather than surrender, the last ten survivors agreed to kill each other by drawing lots. But when Josephus and one other remained, he persuaded his companion that they should surrender to the Romans and hope for mercy. Josephus soon predicted that his captor, Vespasian, would be elevated as the emperor of Rome—an event which indeed did transpire three years later. For the remainder of the war, Josephus accompanied Vespasian and later his son, Titus, until Jerusalem was conquered and burned in 70 A.D. Therefore, he was an eyewitness to the tragic events which transpired and has provided us with a firsthand account as an ancient Jewish war correspondent.

Following the war, Josephus received Roman citizenship and took the family name of Vespasian, Flavius. He was provided a villa near Rome where he spent the rest of his days writing historical, biographical, and apologetic works before dying near the end of the century.

Estimates of Josephus’ character mostly center around his questionable behavior at his capture. It also should be noted that Josephus’ own explanation of his actions is quite self-serving. While he always praised the deeds of his Roman patrons, he also defended the Jewish Scriptures and beliefs. He blamed the Jewish rebellion on “hotheads” among them—revolutionary types who plunged a gentle, peace-loving people into the destructive caldron of a no-win war with Rome.

Whatever be the true estimation of Josephus’ character, it is universally recognized that without his writings, our knowledge of this period would be greatly inferior. “Without the Antiquities and The Jewish War little would be known about the historical events and the religious currents in Palestine in the two centuries before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70” (Schreckenburg, ISBE). Josephus the man remains an enigma. Josephus the writer deserves our deepest appreciation.

(More on Josephus coming soon.)

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