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Flavius Josephus

Jewish historian (37 - ca. 101)

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Josephus , FLAVIUS, Jewish historian, b. A.D. 37, at Jerusalem; d. about 101. He belonged to a distinguished priestly family, whose paternal ancestors he himself traces back five generations; his mother’s family claimed descent from the Machabeans. He received a good education, and association with distinguished scholars developed his intellectual gifts, more especially his memory and power of judgment. He also made himself fully acquainted with and tried the leading politico-religious Jewish parties of his age—the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Impressed by the outward importance of the Pharisees and hoping to secure through them a position of influence, he attached himself to their party at the age of nineteen, although he shared neither their religious nor political views. He went to Rome in the year 64 with the object of procuring from Nero the release of some imprisoned Jewish priests, who were friends of his. He succeeded in winning the favor of Poppaea Sabina, the emperor’s consort, and through her influence gained his cause. But he was so dazzled by the brilliant court life in the metropolis of the world, that he became ever more estranged from the spirit of strict Judaism, considering its struggle against paganism as useless. After his return to Jerusalem, the great Jewish revolt broke out in the year 66. Like most of the aristocratic Jews, Josephus at first discountenanced the rebellion of his countrymen, goaded into activity by their enslaved condition and outraged religious sentiments; when, however, fortune seemed to favor the insurgents, Josephus like the rest of the priestly nobility joined them, and was chosen by the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem to be commander-in-chief in Galilee. As such he established in every city throughout the country a council of judges, the members of which were recruited from those who shared his political views. He guided the diplomatic negotiations as well as the military enterprises with prudence and astuteness. In the beginning the Jews were successful, but later when the Roman General Vespasian advanced with the main army from Antioch to Galilee, burning and murdering, the insurgents either fled or sought shelter in their fortresses. For six weeks Josephus and the boldest spirits among the insurgents defended themselves in the almost impregnable fortress of Jotapata. In the summer of 67, the garrison being now exhausted from lack of water and other necessaries, the Romans stormed the citadel; most of the patriots were put to the sword, but Josephus escaped the massacre by hiding in an inaccessible cistern, and emerged only after receiving an assurance that his life would be spared. Brought before the victorious general, he sought with great shrewdness to ingratiate himself with Vespasian, foretelling his elevation, as well as that of his son Titus, to the imperial dignity. Vespasian, however, kept him near him as a prisoner, and it was only in the year 69, after he had actually become emperor, that he restored to Josephus his liberty.

As a freedman of Vespasian, Josephus assumed in accordance with the Roman custom the former’s family name of Flavianus. He accompanied the emperor as far as Egypt, when the latter had handed over to his son the prosecution of the Jewish War, but then joined the retinue of Titus, and was an eyewitness of the destruction of the Holy City and her Temple. At his personal risk he had tried to persuade the Jews to surrender. After the fall of the city he went to Rome with Titus, and took part in the latter’s triumph. But these scenes did not trouble Josephus’s sense of national honor; on the contrary, he accepted the privilege of Roman citizenship in recognition of his services, and was granted a yearly stipend and also lands in Judea. The succeeding emperors, Titus and his cruel brother Domitian, also showed themselves kindly disposed towards Josephus, and conferred on him many marks of distinction. At court he was allowed to devote himself unmolested to his literary work until his death, which occurred in the reign of Trajan (probably in 101). In his life, as in his writings, he pursued a policy midway between Jewish and pagan culture, for which he was accused by his Jewish countrymen of being unprincipled and hypocritical. His works—with the exception of the “Jewish War“, which was first written in Hebrew and thence translated—were written in elegant Greek, to influence the educated class of his time, and free them from various prejudices against Judaism.

The first work of Josephus was the “Jewish War” (Greek: Peri tou `Ioudaikou polemou) in seven books. This is mainly based on his memoranda made during the war of independence (66-73), on the memoirs of Vespasian, and on letters of King Agrippa. While his story of warlike events is reliable, the account of his own doings is strongly tinctured with foolish self-adulation. This work furnishes the historical background for numerous historical romances, among those of modern times “Lucius Flavius” by J. Spillmann, S.J., and “The End of Juda” by Anton de Waal.

Josephus’s second work, the “Jewish Antiquities” (Greek: `Ioudaike `Archaiologia), contains in twenty books the whole history of the Jews from the Creation to the outbreak of the revolt in A.D. 66. Books I-XI are based on the text of the Septuagint, though at times he also repeats traditional explanations current among the Jews in later times. He also quotes numerous passages from Greek authors whose writings are now lost. On the other hand he made allowance for the tastes of his Gentile contemporaries by arbitrary omissions as well as by the free embellishment of certain scenes. Books XII-XX, in which he speaks of the times preceding the coming of Christ and the foundation of Christianity, are our only sources for many historical events. In these the value of the statements is enhanced by the insertion of dates which are otherwise wanting, and by the citation of authentic documents which confirm and supplement the Biblical narrative. The story of Herod the Great is contained in books XV-XVII. Book XVIII contains in chapter iii the celebrated passage in which mention is made of the Redeemer in the following words: “About this time lived Jesus, a man full of wisdom, if indeed one may call Him a man. For He was the doer of incredible things, and the teacher of such as gladly received the truth. He thus attracted to Himself many Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. On the accusation of the leading men of our people, Pilate condemned Him to death upon the cross; nevertheless those who had previously loved Him still remained faithful to Him. For on the third day He again appeared to them living, just as, in addition to a thousand other marvellous things, prophets sent by God had foretold. And to the present day the race of those who call themselves Christians after Him has not ceased.” Attempts have been made to refute the objections brought against this passage both for internal and external reasons, but the difficulty has not been definitively settled. The passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations. The fact that the “Antiquities” testifies to the truth of Divine Revelation among the Jews as among the Christians, and confirms the historical facts related in the Bible by the incontrovertible testimony of pagan authors, renders this work of Josephus of extreme value for the history of the chosen people. The accounts which he gives of the rise and mutual relations of the different Jewish sects, which are so important in the history and sufferings of the Savior; his information regarding the corruption of the ancient Jewish customs and institutions; his statement concerning the internal conflicts of the Jews, and lastly his account of the last war with the Romans, which put an end to the national independence of the Jews, are of prime importance as historical sources.

In his “Autobiography” (Greek: Phlaouiou `Iosepou Bios), written A.D. 90, Josephus seeks, not without attempts at self-glorification, to justify his position at the beginning of the Jewish rising. In plan and language the book is probably influenced by the writings of Nicholas of Damascus, which Josephus had also used in the “Antiquities”. His work entitled “Against Apion” (Greek: Kata `Apionos), divided in two books, is a defense of the great antiquity of the Jews and a refutation of the charges which had been brought against them by the grammarian Apion of Alexandria on the occasion of an embassy to the Emperor Caligula.

The early Christians were zealous readers of Josephus’s” History of the Jews”, and the Fathers of the Church, such as Jerome and Ambrose, as well as the early ecclesiastical historians like Eusebius, are fond of quoting him in their works. St. Chrysostom calls him a useful expounder of the historical books of the Old Testament. The works of Josephus were translated into Latin at an early date. After the art of printing had been discovered, they were circulated in all languages. The first German translation was edited by the Strasburg Reformer Kaspar Hedio, in 1531, and a French translation was issued by Bur-going in Lyons in 1558. Among the best-known translations in English is that by Whiston (London, 1737), revised by Shilleto (5 vols., London, 1888-9). In the middle of the nineteenth century the interest in the “Jewish Antiquities” was revived by a translation which the Society of St. Charles Borromeo induced Professor Konrad Martin, afterwards Bishop of Paderborn, to undertake in collaboration with Franz Kaulen (Ist ed., Cologne, 1852-3; 2nd and 3rd ed. by Kaulen, 1883 and 1892). The text of Josephus’s works has been published by Dindorf in Greek and Latin (2 vols., Paris, 1845-7) and Bekker (6 vols., Leipzig, 1855-6). There are critical editions by Naber, (Leipzig, 1888-96) and Niese (7 vols., Berlin, 1887-95; text only, 6 vols., Berlin, 1888-95).


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