1. Early Life and Beliefs:
Was born at Jerusalem 37-38 AD, and died at Rome early in the 2nd century, when is not known precisely. His father and mother belonged to families of the priestly aristocracy; consequently he received an excellent education, becoming familiar, not only with Jewish, but with Hellenistic, culture. When 16 years old he resorted to one Banus, an ESSENES, (which see), in the desert of Engedi, with whom he remained for 3 years, absorbing occult lore, and practicing the ascetic life. It might have been expected from his social position that, on his return to Jerusalem, he would join the SADDUCEES (which see); but, his Essene experience having indoctrinated him with ceremonialism, he preferred to become a Pharisee (see PHARISEES). He evidently believed, too, that the Pharisees were akin to the Stoics, who were then influential in the Hellenistic world. During his absence in the desert, the misgovernment of the Roman procurators at Jerusalem had grown apace. And the ineptitudes and injustices of Felix, Albanus and Florus were succeeded by anarchy under Annas, the high priest (62). Accordingly, the Zealots (see ZEALOTS) plotted against Roman rule. Rebellion simmered, and many of the disaffected were transported to Rome to be dealt with there. Among these were several priests, whom Josephus knew. About the year 64, he went to Rome to plead for them, met shipwreck on the voyage, was rescued with a few survivors and was brought to port at Puteoli. Here he met Alityrus, a Jewish actor, who happened to be in the good graces of Poppea, Nero's consort. The empress, a Jewish proselyte, espoused his cause at Rome, and showed him many favors. At the capital, he also discerned the power of the Romans and, in all probability, grew convinced of the hopelessness of armed revolt. On his return to Jerusalem, he found his people set upon insurrection, and was forced, possibly against his better judgment, to make common cause with them. The first part of his public career is concerned with the great struggle that now began.
2. Public Career:
When war broke out, Josephus was appointed governor of Galilee, the province where the Roman attack would first fall. He had no military fitness for command, but the influence of his friends and the exigencies of politics thrust the office upon him. The Zealots soon found that he did not carry out the necessary preparations with thoroughness, and they tried to compass his removal. But he was too influential, too good a politician also, to be undermined. Surrounded by enemies among his own folk, who even attempted to assassinate him, he encountered several dangerous experiences, and, at length, flying from the Romans, was beleaguered with his army in Jotopata, near the Lake of Gennesaret, in May, 67 AD. The Jews withstood the siege for 47 days with splendid courage, till Titus, assaulting under cover of a mist, stormed the stronghold and massacred the weary defenders. Josephus escaped to a cave where, with his usual adroitness, he saved himself from death at the hands of his companions. The Romans soon discovered his hiding-place, and haled him before Vespasian, the commander-in-chief. Josephus worked upon the superstitions of the general, and so ingratiated himself that Vespasian took him to Alexandria in his train. Having been liberated by his captor, he adopted the family name of the Flavians, according to Roman custom. Returning to Palestine with Titus, he proceeded to mediate between the Romans and the Jews, earning the suspicion of the former, the hatred of the latter. His wonted diplomacy preserved him from anything more serious than a wound, and he was an eyewitness of the terrible events that marked the last days of Jerusalem. Then he accompanied Titus to Rome for the TRIUMPH (which see). Here he lived the remainder of his days, in high favor with the ruling house, and relieved from all anxiety about worldly goods by lavish imperial patronage. He was thus enabled to devote himself to literary pursuits.
The works of Josephus render him one of the most valuable authorities for the student of New Testament times. They are as follows:
(1) Concerning the Jewish War, written before 79; we have the Greek translation of this history by the author; there are 7 books:
I, the period from Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BC) to Herod the Great (4 BC); II, from 4 BC to 66 AD, covering the early events of the War; III, occurrences in Galilee in 67 AD; IV, the course of the War till the siege of Jerusalem; V and VI, the investment and fall of Jerusalem; VII, the aftermath of the rebellion. While this work is not written with the objective accuracy of scientific history, it is credible on the whole, except where it concerns the role played by the author.
(2) The Antiquities of the Jews, written not later than 94 AD. In this Josephus purports to relate the entire history of his race, from the beginning till the War of 66 AD. The 20 books fall naturally into 5 divisions, thus:
(a) I-X, from prehistoric times till the Captivity, in other words, the period related in the Old Testament substantially;
(b) XI, the age of Cyrus;
(c) XII-XIV, the beginnings of the Hellenistic period, from Alexander the Great, including the Maccabean revolt, till the accession of Herod the Great;
(d) XV-XVII, the reign of Herod;
(e) XVIII-XX, from Herod's death till the War of 66.
While it cannot be called an apology for the Jews, this work betrays the author's consciousness of the disfavor with which his people were viewed throughout the Roman Empire. Josephus does what he can to disabuse the Greek-Roman educated classes, although he shows curious obliquity to the grandeur of Hebrew religion. All in all, the work is disappointing; but it contains many details and sidelights of first importance to investigators.
(3) The treatise called, since Jerome, Against Apion, is Josephus' most inspiring performance. The older title, Concerning the High Antiquity of the Jews, tells us what it contains--a defense of Hebrew religion against the libels of heathendom. It is in two books. The vituperation with which Josephus visits Apion is unimportant in comparison with the defense of Mosaic religion and the criticism of paganism. Here the author's character is seen at its best; the air of Worldly Wiseman has been dropped, and he approaches enthusiasm.
(4) His last work is the Vita or Autobiography, a misleading title. It is an echo of old days in Galilee, directed against the traductions of an associate, Justus of Tiberias. We have Josephus at his worst here. He so colors the narrative as to convey a totally wrong impression of the part he played during the great crisis. In extenuation, it may be said that his relations with the imperial court rendered it difficult, perhaps impossible, for him to pursue another course.
W.D. Morrison, The Jews under Roman Rule (London, 1890); E. Schurer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Div. I, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1890); A. Hausrath, History of New Testament Times, IV, div VII, chapter ii (London, 1895); H. Graetz, History of the Jews from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, II, chapter x (London, 1891); article "Josephus" in Jewish Encyclopedia, Translations by Whiston (many editions), and of The War of the Jews, by Traill and Taylor (London, 1862).
R. M. Wenley
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