Joseph son of Matthias (Hebrew: Yosef ben Mattityahu—Greek: Iōsēph ton tou Matthaiou) was born c. AD 37–38 (3797–3799 in the Hebrew calendar) at Jerusalem. Both of his maternal and paternal lineages were priestly in origin, especially his mother's side that may have included the Maccabean priests who repelled Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–163 BC). He is better known as Josephus, which is the Latin version of his original Hebrew name, Yosef. As an adolescent, Josephus studied under all of the major Jewish denominations of his time: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. He finally settled among the Pharisees when he became an adult, despite his overall disagreement with their religio-political ideologies. By the age of 26, Josephus had garnered enough influence as a Pharisee that he successfully negotiated the release of other Jewish priests held captive by the emperor Nero in Rome.
During his two-year stay in Rome, Josephus' view of the world became more liberal as he enjoyed its cosmopolitan atmosphere. This change of heart would later lead him to work for the Romans during a major Jewish revolt against them. However, the steps that got him there were a little more nuanced than all-out treachery. Josephus returned to Jerusalem in AD 66, and the First Jewish-Roman War began soon afterward. The Sanhedrin, the preeminent council that arbitrated the religious matters of Judea, appointed him as the leader of Galilee's homeland defense. During his military career, Josephus evaded charges of treason by the Zealots, namely from John of Giscala. Yet, the Sanhedrin maintained their trust in him as he attempted to rescue the key Galilean city of Sepphoris from its gentile sympathizers. Josephus was not ultimately successful there, so he kept his troops on the move and away from Roman forces closing in. He asked the Sanhedrin to send reinforcements or their terms of peace with Roman general Vespasian, which they did not acknowledge. Needless to say, Josephus was outmaneuvered by Vespasian at the previously invulnerable stronghold at Jotapata in May AD 67 and besieged. Two months later, the entire fortress was destroyed and he fled to an underground cavern, where he eventually discovered forty Jewish fighters hiding in an affixed cistern. This event was a major turning point in Josephus' life, as it appears that he saved his life by mere flattery and betrayal. Josephus convinced his fellow rebels to cast lots to see which one of them would survive, having prior knowledge that Rome would spare him. He even told Vespasian that he could foretell the future, to include the Roman general's very own succession as Caesar. Josephus was liberated from servitude when this prophecy became reality, resulting in him taking Vespasian's surname, Flavius, and serving as his ambassador to Judea.
Jewish or Roman?
When Josephus visited Rome from AD 64 to 66 to persuade Nero to release a few Jewish priests from prison, he was greatly influenced by its cultural grandeur. Perhaps, he felt a sense of freedom in its cosmopolitan ambiance as opposed to the strictures of Judaism. It is common for many people to have an identity crisis when they are in a foreign culture that they sympathize with. Josephus may have experienced an intrapersonal conflict and wanted to appease both sides. Since the first century, Jews have been rather critical of Josephus and the primary interest in his writings derives not from them, but the Christian tradition. In The Jewish War (Latin: Bellum Judaicum), he addressed his critics who derided him as a traitor and attempts to justify himself. Josephus knew that neither Jewish nor Roman consensus respected him, but understood his indebtedness to Vespasian. It was from Caesar's charge that he had the safety to write his accounts and self-defenses. Therefore, it is possible that Josephus simply wrote about the tragedy of Jewish life under Roman governance as he saw it, although with some propagandist perspective alluding to his patronage. Perhaps, the historian and military leader could be understood as a tragic figure himself, born into circumstances that caused him to be a man of dualistic contrasts.
Josephus receives the most scrutiny for his actions during and after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. In the early battles of the First Jewish-Roman War, the Judean zealots had the advantage. However, their fate changed when Vespasian ascended to the throne and Titus became the primary leader of the Roman army. Josephus' patronage transferred from Vespasian to Titus before the siege, thereby requiring him to serve the Romans while they conspired against his countrymen. While the Jewish insurgents still maintained control of Jerusalem in early AD 70, Josephus attempted to persuade them to relinquish it in light of their inevitable defeat. He believed that the overall Roman suppression of Jewish tensions was unavoidable, that the Jewish people had no choice but to submit. The Roman victory was so swift and thorough that subsequent generations of Jews have considered the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of their temple in AD 70 to be their worst disaster in history until World War II. After the First Jewish-Roman War was over, Josephus returned to Rome with Titus, the very man who sacked the Temple and exiled Jerusalem's Jewish population. He received official citizenship, a lifetime annuity, and his Judean estate. In retirement, Josephus composed all of his historical works, to include a defense of his decisions.
Josephus is relevant to the study of Christian origins because his works provide historical context for the New Testament. He corroborated many events also recorded by the New Testament writers. Josephus wrote about James of Jerusalem (see Ant. 20.9.1), as well as Jesus himself. Scholars call it the "Flavian Testimony" (Latin: Testimonium Flavianum), a heavily debated part of Josephus' writings. While most of the testimony is uncontested, certain parts in which he praised Jesus seem unlikely for a Jewish Zealot who never joined his movement. In about AD 93, Josephus testified:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day
Josephus was born into a harsh environment where his fellow Jews were being oppressed by Roman gentiles after many periods of national failure. In context, the conquest of Rome in Israel represented something that was not supposed to happen according to the postexilic Jewish worldview. Even though the ancient Israelites reneged on their covenant with their God and were punished by other empires, the Jews preserved their law and rebuilt their temple to accomplish what their ancestors failed to do before spending seventy years in Babylonian captivity. However, Josephus saw the Romans differently after visiting their capital city and allowed that experience to shape his later decisions. It cannot be determined whether he actually agreed with Rome's imperialism as a great unifying influence or whether he was merely trying to survive in his austere surroundings. Perhaps, "traitor" is too harsh a judgment, although Yosef's transition to "Flavius Josephus" could be legitimately viewed as treachery because his decisions were made in a time of war and collateral destruction. Conversely, his efforts to interpret biblical Hebrew literature into comprehensible material for Greeks and Romans could be seen as a love for his people intended to protect them.
To the modern researcher, Josephus provides the most objective source available about life in first-century Judea. While the New Testament and the writings of rabbinic Judaism present a religious perspective, Josephus compliments these sources while recording details that modern historians want to know. If left to purely Jewish or Roman sources alone, this history would probably be lost if it was not for Josephus. Perhaps, it is in this way the soldier and historian became the prophet he deemed himself to be. Josephus' ability to recognize Roman and Greek patterns of thought and to communicate Israel's sociopolitical philosophy, history, laws, and culture to gentiles continues to influence objective scholars who benefit from his accounts. In this way, Josephus is not so much a traitor of his people, but their defender throughout posterity.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, your eternal Word speaks to us through the words of holy scripture. Here we read about your mighty acts and purposes in history, and about those who served you faithfully. Inspired by the revelation of your Son, Jesus, we seek to do your will. Give us ears to hear and hearts to obey. Amen.
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