Who Was Josephus? Originally Published December 13-14, 2019.

Yosef ben Matityahu (יוסף בן מתתיהו), born in Jerusalem in the year 37 CE, was a historian, and so much more.  His family was aristocratic, and in his autobiography he tells of having been a youth who was knowledgeable in Torah, on halakhah, and as an aggadist (our word for the week, meaning educated and fluent in the oral laws).  At the age of 26, Yosef, who would come to be known as Titus Flavius Josephus and who could speak Latin and Greek, was sent to secure the release of priests who had been seized and transported to Rome by one Felix to respond to some charges.  Networking to impress Empress Poppaea Sabina, he was successful in the release and also gained an affinity for Rome.

At the outbreak of the Jewish War of 66 CE, Josephus became head of forces in the Galilee, no small task.  (He may have seized the opportunity himself, or may have been sent.)  After the city of Jotapata fell in 67, he fled with 40 men to a cave.  They vowed to kill each other rather than be taken, but Josephus rigged the lots they drew and he and the other man remaining at the end surrendered to the Romans.  (Remember, he liked them.)  In Rome he appeared before commander Vespasian, and foretold his ascension to Emperor; Vespasian spared his life and made him a slave.  This is told in Josephus’ volume The Jewish War, sponsored by the now-Emperor Vespasian who as ruler freed Josephus (who then took Vespasian’s family name of Flavius). 

In a seeming defection to Roman allegiance, Josephus would accompany Titus and his army on a mission to conquer Jerusalem.  All sides suspected him of spying, and he tried to exact a surrender, but the army took the city.  Titus gave Josephus leave to take whatever spoils from Jerusalem he wished, and he took a Sefer Torah.  Josephus’ family estate in the city was confiscated by Titus, for which Josephus received land in the valley of Jezreel.

Josephus continued to document history as it unfolded.  He stated in one book that he was writing two versions, one in Aramaic and one in Greek.  The Aramaic version for the commoners has been lost, but it was said to have been the basis for the Greek version.  One of the most important outcomes for his further history works, though, especially Antiquities of the Jews, was to set forth the ancient basis of the Jews in the face of the hatred by the other peoples.  The work elucidates about the life of Jews and the beginnings of Christianity.  In the 1400s and 1500s his books were translated into French, English, Greek, and possibly other languages.  His writings seem directed both toward Jews and non-Jews.

Josephus floated among many sides of many conflicts and confluences.  It has been said he was contrite for youthful indiscretion in battle and affinity, but that is uncertain.  Perhaps he was documenting to help bridge the way toward unity.  Maybe we should be rereading Antiquities of the Jews, just to see what Yosele had to say.