The Fascinating Chronicles of Josephus
STUDENTS of history have long pondered the fascinating writings of Josephus. Born just four years after the death of Christ, he was an eyewitness to the chilling fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy about the first-century Jewish nation. Josephus was a military commander, a diplomat, a Pharisee, and a scholar.
Josephus’ writings abound with captivating details. They illuminate the Bible canon while furnishing a literary guide to the topography and geography of Palestine. No wonder many consider his works to be a valuable addition to their library!
His Early Life
Joseph ben Matthias, or Josephus, was born in 37 C.E., the first year of the reign of Roman emperor Caligula. Josephus’ father belonged to a priestly family. His mother, he claimed, was a descendant of Hasmonaean high priest Jonathan.
While in his teens, Josephus was an avid student of the Mosaic Law. He carefully analyzed three sects of Judaism—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Favoring the latter, he decided to dwell for three years with a desert hermit named Bannus, likely an Essene. Abandoning this at the age of 19, Josephus returned to Jerusalem and joined the Pharisees.
To Rome and Back
Josephus traveled to Rome in 64 C.E. to intercede in behalf of Jewish priests whom Judean procurator Felix had sent to Emperor Nero for trial. Experiencing shipwreck en route, Josephus narrowly escaped death. Only 80 of the 600 passengers on the ship were rescued.
During the visit of Josephus to Rome, a Jewish actor introduced him to Nero’s wife, the empress Poppaea. She played a key role in the success of his mission. The magnificence of the city made a lasting impression on Josephus.
When Josephus returned to Judea, revolt against Rome was firmly fixed in the minds of the Jews. He attempted to impress his countrymen with the futility of warfare against Rome. Unable to restrain them and likely fearful that he would be considered a traitor, he accepted appointment as commander of Jewish troops in Galilee. Josephus rallied and trained his men and secured provisions in preparation for battle against Roman forces—but to no avail. Galilee fell to Vespasian’s army. After a 47-day siege, Josephus’ stronghold at Jotapata was conquered.
When he surrendered, Josephus shrewdly predicted that Vespasian would soon be emperor. Confined but spared punishment because of this prediction, Josephus was freed when it came true. That was a turning point in his life. For the rest of the war, he served the Romans as an interpreter and a mediator. Expressing the patronage of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, Josephus added the family name Flavius to his own.
The Works of Flavius Josephus
The oldest of Josephus’ writings is entitled The Jewish War. It is believed that he prepared this seven-volume account to present the Jews with a graphic portrayal of Rome’s superior strength and to provide a deterrent against future revolts. These writings scrutinize Jewish history from the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes (in the second century B.C.E.) to the turbulent strife of 67 C.E. As an eyewitness, Josephus then discusses the war climaxing in 73 C.E.
Another of Josephus’ works was The Jewish Antiquities, a 20-volume history of the Jews. Starting with Genesis and creation, it continues to the outbreak of war with Rome. Josephus closely follows the order of the Bible narrative, adding traditional interpretations and external observations.
Josephus wrote a personal narrative entitled simply Life. In it he seeks to justify his stand during the war and attempts to allay accusations brought against him by Justus of Tiberias. A fourth work—a two-volume apology entitled Against Apion—defends the Jews against misrepresentations.
Insight Into God’s Word
There is no doubt that much of Josephus’ history is accurate. In his work entitled Against Apion, he shows that the Jews never included the Apocryphal books as part of the inspired Scriptures. He gives testimony to the accuracy and internal harmony of the divine writings. Says Josephus: “We have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, . . . but only twenty-two books [the equivalent of our modern division of the Scriptures into 39 books], which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.”
In The Jewish Antiquities, Josephus adds interesting detail to the Biblical account. He says that “Isaac was twenty-five years old” when Abraham bound him hand and foot for sacrifice. According to Josephus, after assisting in the construction of the altar, Isaac said that “‘he was not worthy to be born at first, if he should reject the determination of God and of his father’ . . . So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed.”
To the Scriptural account of Israel’s departure from ancient Egypt, Josephus adds these particulars: “The number that pursued after them was six hundred chariots, with fifty thousand horsemen, and two hundred thousand footmen, all armed.” Josephus also says that “when Samuel was twelve years old, he began to prophesy: and once when he was asleep, God called to him by his name.”—Compare 1 Samuel 3:2-21.
Other writings of Josephus provide insight into taxes, laws, and events. He names Salome as the woman who danced at Herod’s party and who asked for the head of John the Baptizer. (Mark 6:17-26) Most of what we know about the Herods was recorded by Josephus. He even says that “in order to cover his great age, [Herod] coloured his hair black.”
The Great Anti-Roman Revolt
Just 33 years after Jesus gave his prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple, its fulfillment began to unfold. Radical Jewish factions in Jerusalem were bent on throwing off the Roman yoke. In 66 C.E., news of this prompted the mobilizing and dispatching of Roman legions under Syrian governor Cestius Gallus. Their mission was to quell the rebellion and punish the offenders. After wreaking havoc in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Cestius’ men pitched camp around the walled city. Using a method called testudo, the Romans successfully combined their shields like the back of a tortoise for protection from the enemy. Attesting to the success of this method, Josephus states: “The darts that were thrown fell, and slided off without doing them any harm; so the soldiers undermined the wall, without being themselves hurt, and got all things ready for setting fire to the gate of the temple.”
“It then happened,” says Josephus, “that Cestius . . . recalled his soldiers from the place . . . He retired from the city, without any reason in the world.” Evidently without intending to magnify God’s Son, Josephus recorded the very act that Christians in Jerusalem had awaited. It was the fulfillment of Jesus Christ’s prophecy! Years earlier, the Son of God had warned: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her; because these are days for meting out justice, that all the things written may be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-22) As Jesus instructed, his faithful followers quickly fled the city, stayed away, and were spared the agony that later befell it.
When Roman armies returned in 70 C.E., the consequences were recorded in graphic detail by Josephus. Vespasian’s eldest son, General Titus, came to conquer Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple. Within the city, warring factions attempted to take control. They resorted to extreme measures, and much blood was shed. Some “were in such distress by their internal calamities, that they wished for the Romans,” hoping for “delivery from their domestic miseries,” says Josephus. He calls the insurgents “robbers” engaged in destroying the property of the wealthy and murdering men of importance—those suspected of willingness to compromise with the Romans.
Amid civil war, living conditions in Jerusalem plunged to unimaginable depths, and the dead remained unburied. The seditious themselves “fought against each other, while they trod upon the dead bodies as they lay heaped one upon another.” They plundered the populace, murdering for food and wealth. Outcries of the afflicted were continuous.
Titus exhorted the Jews to surrender the city and thus save themselves. He “sent Josephus to speak to them in their own language; for he imagined they might yield to the persuasion of a countryman of their own.” But they reproached Josephus. Titus next built a wall of pointed stakes around the whole city. (Luke 19:43) With all hope of escape cut off and movement restricted, famine “devoured the people by whole houses and families.” The continuing battle added to the death toll. Unknowingly fulfilling Bible prophecy, Titus conquered Jerusalem. Afterward, observing its massive walls and fortified towers, he exclaimed: “It was no other than God that ejected the Jews out of these fortifications.” Over one million Jews perished.—Luke 21:5, 6, 23, 24.
After the War
After the war Josephus went to Rome. Enjoying the sponsorship of the Flavians, he lived as a Roman citizen in the former mansion of Vespasian and received an imperial pension along with gifts from Titus. Josephus then pursued a literary career.
It is interesting to note that Josephus evidently coined the term “Theocracy.” With regard to the Jewish nation, he wrote: “Our government . . . may be termed a Theocracy, by ascribing the authority and the power to God.”
Josephus never claimed to be a Christian. He did not write under inspiration by God. Yet, there is illuminating historical value in the fascinating chronicles of Josephus.
[Picture on page 31]
Josephus at the walls of Jerusalem