Recorder of Jewish History
by Etienne Nodet, O.P.

Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived between 37 and 96 C.E., is the best source we have for re-creating the first century of Christianity, the time in which Jesus lived and in which most of the New Testament was written. To him we are indebted for shedding light on the diversity within Judaism at that time, the customs that were observed, the Roman occupation and the way in which ordinary people conducted their lives.

His Early Life

Josephus was born of an important priestly family in Jerusalem in 37 C.E., the year of Emperor Tiberius' death. After a good education and training with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the three main Jewish schools of his time, he tells us that he chose "to conduct himself according to the rules of the Pharisees."

He was appointed as a high-ranking official in Jerusalem and at the age of 25 or 26 he was sent to Rome with a Jewish delegation to ask Emperor Nero to release some pious priests, taken captive there. He does not elaborate, but in all probability, this involved the high priest Ananias who had been removed by the Romans after he had James, the brother of Jesus, and Bishop of Jerusalem, put to death. (Ananias, who was known for his political skills and piety, should have known better. Martyrdom increased James' fame, which resulted in more disturbances).

Revolt Against Roman Rule

Zealot religious violence and divisions were gearing up. In 66, some Zealots defeated Roman troops near Jerusalem, breaking a truce between the Romans and the Jews. Nero decided on a major retaliation. On the Jewish side, Josephus was sent to Galilee to prepare a defense war. This was a difficult position, because the Roman army would invade from the north and the Jewish society in this northern part of the country was seriously divided.

The country people—mostly Pharisean peasants—could not accept the Jews of the Romanized cities, especially Tiberius, the capital built by Herod Antipas. Not only was it built on a cemetery, which outraged Jewish sensibilities, but it was named after the Roman emperor. Josephus' trip to Rome had convinced him that no real victory over the Romans was possible. His main task was to overcome the divisions among the Jewish parties in order to find a way to avoid the war. But the conflicts were so deeply rooted that he failed, and had to be content, when the Roman threat came close, with assembling a superficially united army.

When he was besieged in a key city, he managed to escape from his countrymen and surrender to Vespasian Flavius, the Roman general. He was taken captive, but when brought before Vespasian he predicted that the general would become emperor. His prophecy proved true two years later when Vespasian was appointed emperor of Rome in 69. Vespasian freed Josephus and gave him his own Roman name, hence the well-known pen name Josephus Flavius.

A Writer of Rome

This was the starting point of the second part of his life. Titus, son of Vespasian, took over as general from his father. Josephus became an interpreter for the Romans and witnessed the great Judaean war and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He was taken back to Rome and ordered to write a history of the war. When he died, some of his projects were unfinished, but he left four works, totaling some 90,000 lines of text.

His first book is entitled Jewish Wars. The core of the book is an account of the events he lived, from 66 until the fall of Masada in 73. He mentions the Temple of Peace, opened by Vespasian in Rome in 75, which included all the religious articles taken from the Jerusalem Temple by Titus and brought in triumph to the capital city.

In the prologue, he states that the true historian is the one who has witnessed the facts, instead of compiling and rearranging ancient documents, which was the main rule of Greek historiography. However, he puts the start of his narrative at the Maccabaean crisis, more than two centuries earlier, when a desecration of the temple by the Greeks was followed by a restoration. He saw this as ancient history becoming a prophecy for present events. This is a typically Jewish perspective: The historian is a prophet, and the prophet speaks of history.

His second work, Jewish Antiquities, is made up of 20 volumes and is Josephus' major work. He begins with Creation and Adam, for he wants to show that his nation is actually ancient. Thus he paraphrases the Hebrew Bible, and continues until 66 C.E., just before the war. Before the time of Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.E.) he adds almost no external evidence, but for the Hellenistic and Roman periods, he provides us with invaluable, non-biblical documentation on the fate of Judea. From the Maccabaean crisis onwards, he seriously expands what he already said in the War. These parallel portrayals are sometimes inconsistent, which allows an assessment of the way he worked.

Based on a page originally stored at

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