Josephus the Ancient Historian Gets a Little Touchy
Josephus is an extraordinarily important author, but that doesn't mean he's always reliable
The Jewish historian Josephus is an extraordinarily important author. Without his writings, we would know little about several centuries of Jewish history. His works provide valuable insights for both Old and New Testament scholars. And he provides the earliest discussions of New Testament figures like Jesus, John the Baptist, and James the Just.
Josephus was born in A.D. 37 into a priestly family. He served as a general in the Jewish War of the 60s, went over to the Roman side, and began a literary career after the war. He died around 100.
As a historian, Josephus is known principally for two works: a seven-volume history called The Jewish War, which provides an eyewitness account of the conflict in which he served, and Antiquities of the Jews, a twenty-volume history of the Jewish people.
He also wrote a two-volume apologetic work called Against Apion and a one-volume autobiography known as the Life of Flavius Josephus.
Given his importance, a question naturally arises: How reliable is Josephus when he tells us something?
The answer is more complex than you might suppose. Josephus is not totally accurate, as quickly becomes clear if you read him in depth rather than looking at isolated passages.
It could be tempting to dismiss him altogether, but that would be a mistake. Serious scholars of all persuasions recognize that despite his flaws, Josephus is an extremely valuable source.
So what are the limits of his reliability? One of the first things a reader of Josephus discovers is that he is extraordinarily defensive, and about two things: his people and himself.
He’s defensive about his people because he was living in an ethnically tense world, with friction among different groups in the Roman empire. Jewish people, in particular, were viewed as arrogant and standoffish because they did not participate in many Gentile practices. And their reputation only declined after the disastrous war of the 60s.
Why is he defensive about himself? The fact that his Gentile readers knew Josephus to be a Jew would be enough, but he’s also acutely aware that his fellow Jews regarded him as a traitor.
After serving as a general in Galilee, Josephus was captured and managed to survive by allying himself with the Romans. He was even given Roman citizenship and—as was customary—took the name Flavius in honor of the emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who granted it to him.
Consequently, two of Josephus’s overarching themes in his writings are making his people look good and making himself look good. There are passages where his desire to do this is so palpable that the reader realizes he’s either exaggerating or lying.
For example, in his Life, Josephus begins by stressing the nobility of his priestly family and the fact that he has royal blood from the Hasmonean dynasty, which sprang from the Maccabees. This is a way of silencing Jewish critics by cowing them with his dual lineage, which is both sacred and royal.
He’s undoubtedly telling the truth about this. These facts were too well known and confirmable for his critics to deny them. But then Josephus starts making self-aggrandizing claims that strain credulity.
He writes: “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 used constantly to come to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances” (Life 2:9).
Really? The chief priests and civic leaders used to consult a fourteen-year-old boy to find out the precise details of Jewish law? And they did that constantly? Josephus may have been a studious lad, and maybe someone having trouble remembering something asked him a question occasionally, but at a minimum, this claim involves exaggeration.
So does his next set of claims: “At about the age of sixteen I determined to gain personal experience of the several sects into which our nation is divided” (2:10). He then began studying the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. “I thought that, after a thorough investigation, I should be in a position to select the best. So, I submitted myself to hard training and laborious exercises and passed through the three courses” (2:11).
(Notice that this suggests that the chief priests and leading men were regularly consulting him about finer points of Jewish law even before he acquired technical knowledge of how the three schools interpreted the Law. Yeah, right.)
As part of his training, Josephus began living in the desert with a hermit named Bannus and undertaking ascetical practices. “I became his devoted disciple. With him I lived for three years and, having accomplished my purpose, returned to the city. Being now in my nineteenth year I began to govern my life by the rules of the Pharisees” (2:12).
If Josephus came back to the city and decided to be a Pharisee at age nineteen, after living with Bannus for three years, then he must have begun his desert sojourn at age sixteen. But that’s the same age he said he started “hard training and laborious exercises” in the three Jewish schools of thought.
So which was it? Was he living with a hermit in the desert or getting a thorough training in the thought of three different sects during this period?
Josephus probably did live with a hermit for a while, but he probably gained only a passing familiarity with the thought of the three sects—and it’s possible that all the training he got in their beliefs came from a single guy: Bannus. Josephus’s account of studies of the sects is at least exaggerated.
When it comes to his wartime activities, Josephus portrays himself and the wise leaders of the Jewish people as opposing the outbreak of the rebellion, and he lays the blame for it at the feet of certain younger hotheads.
One strongly suspects that both Josephus (a general!) and various Jewish leaders were rather more willing to rebel than he makes out and that he’s minimizing this to counter their warlike reputation in Gentile eyes—as well as relieving himself of responsibility for the disastrous outcome of the war for his Jewish readers.
After the Romans captured Josephus, he was in danger of being put to death. At this point, he announced that he’d received a divine revelation and told the Roman general Vespasian that he and his son Titus would become emperors.
At the time, Rome was engaged in a series of civil wars, and Vespasian was a respected general who could plausibly become emperor.
But “to this speech Vespasian, at the moment, seemed to attach little credit, supposing it to be a trick of Josephus to save his life” (War 3:8:9). And that’s exactly what most commentators have concluded. Josephus didn’t receive a revelation, but made the prediction as a desperate gamble.
The gamble paid off, because when the legions acclaimed Vespasian as emperor, Josephus’s fortunes rose dramatically!
These examples let us identify the main situations when we should be skeptical of what Josephus says. When he lies or exaggerates, it’s for defensive reasons. He’s either defending himself—like preserving his life or reputation—or defending his people by seeking to rehabilitate them in the eyes of Gentiles.
But how reliable is he in other situations? That’s what we’ll look at next time.