gigatos | November 27, 2021


Flavius Josephus (died c. 100 probably in Rome) was a Jewish Hellenistic historian.

As a young priest from the Jerusalem upper class, Josephus had an active role in the Jewish War: He defended Galilee against the Roman army under Vespasian in the spring of 67. At Jotapata he fell into Roman captivity. He prophesied to the commander Vespasian his future emperorship. As a freedman, he accompanied Vespasian”s son Titus in the final phase of the war and thus witnessed the conquest of Jerusalem (70 AD). With Titus, he arrived in Rome the following year, where he spent the rest of his life. He was granted Roman citizenship and henceforth lived on an imperial pension and the proceeds of his estates in Judea. He used his leisure time to write several works in Greek:

Roman historians mentioned Josephus only as a Jewish prisoner with an oracle saying about Vespasian”s emperorship. For all information on his biography, one must therefore rely on the Bellum and the Vita.

Josephus” writings have been preserved because they were discovered by Christian authors in late antiquity as a kind of reference work. In Josephus, the reader of the New Testament found useful background information: He was the only contemporary author who spoke about Galilee in detail and with his own local knowledge. The city of Jerusalem and the temple there are also described in detail. Josephus mentioned John the Baptist and probably also Jesus of Nazareth – however, this passage (the so-called Testimonium Flavianum) has been revised by Christians and the original wording is uncertain. In the Bellum, Josephus described in detail the suffering of the people in besieged Jerusalem. He broke with the conventions of ancient historiography, which obliged him to be objective, to lament the misfortunes of his homeland. Since Origen, Christian theologians have interpreted these war reports as God”s judgment on the Jews, a consequence of Jesus” crucifixion, which in their eyes was the fault of the Jews.

For the history of Judea from about 200 BC to 75 AD, Josephus” works are the most important ancient source. His unique selling point is that, as an ancient Jew, he provides information about his childhood and youth on the one hand and his role in the war against Rome on the other. However, the reader never encounters the young Galilean military leader directly, but contradictory images that an older Roman citizen drew of his former self.

Recent research looks at how Josephus sought his way as a Jewish historian in Flavian Rome. The inhabitants of Rome were constantly confronted with the issue of Judea, as Vespasian and Titus celebrated their victory in a rebellious province with triumphal processions, coinage, and monumental architecture as if it were a new conquest. Josephus took on the task of telling the story of this war differently to the victors as one of the defeated. The result is a hybrid work that combines Jewish, Greek and Roman. This makes Josephus an interesting author for postcolonial reading.

This is how Josephus introduced himself to the reader in his first work. He bore the frequent Hebrew name יוסף Jôsef and transcribed it into Greek as Ἰώσηπος Iṓsēpos, with an unaspirated p, probably because Greek personal names ending in -phos are rather rare. However, he remained faithful to the Hebrew naming conventions, so that it is possible to reconstruct the name by which he must have been known in his youth: יוסף בן מתתיהו Jôsef ben Mattitjāhû.

The Roman name Flavius Iosephus was not used by Josephus himself in his writings. It is only attested in Christian authors from the late 2nd century on. In view of Josephus” close connection to Emperor Vespasian after the Jewish War, however, it can indeed be assumed that the latter granted him Roman citizenship. Presumably, Josephus took over the praenomen and the gentilnomen of his patron, whose full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, and added his previous non-Roman name Iosephus as a third name component (cognomen). Accordingly, it can be assumed that his Roman name was Titus Flavius Iosephus, even though the praenomen Titus is not attested in the ancient sources.

Family of origin and youth

Josephus stated that he was born in the first year of the reign of Emperor Caligula; elsewhere he mentioned that his 56th year was the 13th year of the reign of Emperor Domitian. This gives a date of birth between September 13, 37 and March 17, 38. The family belonged to the Jerusalem upper class and had landed property in the surrounding area of the city. According to the vita, father and mother came from the priestly-royal family of the Hasmoneans, although this is not further specified in the case of the mother. The father Matthias belonged to the first of 24 priestly service classes. However, Matthias could not trace himself back to the Hasmoneans in a purely patrilineal generational order. He descended from a daughter of the high priest Jonathan.

Ernst Baltrusch suspects that Josephus wanted to present his traditional Jewish-priestly socialization in the autobiography in such a way that it was understandable to the Roman readership as an aristocratic educational path – foreign and familiar at the same time:

Josephus had a presumably older brother Matthias, named after his father, and was educated together with him. At the age of about 14, he was known as a child prodigy; “the high priests and the noblest of the city” met with him repeatedly to have details of the Torah explained to them. A literary topos, Plutarch”s biography of Cicero can be cited for comparison: The parents of fellow students would have attended classes to admire Cicero”s intelligence.

Just as a young Roman left the parental home at 16 to prepare himself for participation in public life under the supervision of a tutor, Josephus stylized the next step of his biography: first, he explored the philosophical schools of Judaism (as such he presents Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes): “Under strict self-discipline and with many labors I passed through all three.” After that, he says, he entrusted himself for three years to the guidance of an ascetic named Bannus, who was in the Judean Desert. The Bannus episode is an example of how Josephus invited the reader to transcultural readings:

There is nothing certain about an actual stay in the desert of the youthful Josephus in the Vita.

At the age of 19, Josephus returned to Jerusalem and joined the Pharisees. For a young man of the upper class, the choice of the Sadducee religious party would have been closer. But if he already chose the Pharisees, one does not quite understand why his historical works paint a rather negative picture of them. In the context of the Vita, it should be noted that Josephus fulfilled expectations of the public: his years of apprenticeship had led to a life decision, and thus he possessed an inner orientation when he stepped out into the public. The Vita would be misunderstood if one deduced from it that Josephus lived according to Pharisaic rules in everyday life. Indeed, it was desirable that persons in public life put aside the philosophical inclinations of their youth in favor of their political duties.

Formative for Josephus” work was not Pharisaism, but the priesthood, to which he referred again and again. This was the reason why he could competently interpret his own tradition and the reader could trust his account. At the age of 19 or 20, young priests began serving in the temple. His insider knowledge shows that Josephus knew him from his own experience. In his vita, he passed over the years from 57 to 63 AD with silence. He gave the impression that he had only taken the role of an observer during this politically turbulent time.

Rome trip

According to Plutarch, one could begin a public career in two ways, either by proving oneself in a military action or by appearing in court or participating in a legation to the emperor. Both required courage and intelligence. Josephus” Vita corresponded well to this ideal by highlighting Josephus” trip to Rome in 6364. He wanted to obtain the release of Jewish priests whom the prefect Felix had had “arrested for a small and far-fetched cause” and then had them transferred to Rome to answer to the emperor. It remains unclear whether Josephus acted on his own initiative or by whom he was commissioned. A transfer to Rome indicates more serious charges, perhaps of a political nature.

The literary formation of this episode of the Vita is obvious. Josephus stated that he had become acquainted in a circle of friends with Aliturus, an actor of Jewish descent, who established contact with Nero”s wife Poppaea Sabina. Through her intervention, the priests had been released. It is possible that Aliturus is a literary figure modeled on the well-known mime Lucius Domitius Paris. Fitting for an author of the Flavian period, this would have been an ironic jibe against the conditions at Nero”s court: Actors and women ran the affairs of government. The episode of the Rome trip shows the reader of the Vita that its hero was suited for diplomatic missions. Researchers debate whether the Rome mission qualified Josephus for the responsible task of defending Galilee, according to the Jerusalemites, and replaced a lack of military experience.

Military leaders in the Jewish War

When Josephus returned to Judea, the revolt, which then expanded into a war against Rome, was already underway. He had tried to moderate the Zealots with arguments, Josephus wrote. “But I did not prevail; for the fanaticism of the desperate had spread too far.” He then reportedly sought refuge in the inner temple area until the Zealot leader Manaḥem was overthrown and assassinated (fall 66). The temple, however, was not a center of the peace party; on the contrary, the temple captain Elʿazar had his power base there, and Josephus seems to have joined Elʿazar”s Zealot group.

A punitive expedition by the governor of Syria, Gaius Cestius Gallus, ended in the fall of 66 with a Roman defeat at Bet-Ḥoron; afterward, the Roman administration in Judea collapsed. Long-simmering conflicts between various population groups escalated. Chaos was the result. “In fact, a group of young Jerusalemites from the priestly aristocracy immediately tried to take advantage of the uprising and establish a kind of state in Jewish Palestine … but with very little success” (Seth Schwartz).

Even in the first phase of the revolt, it was “groups and individuals beyond the traditional power and constitutional structures” who determined Jerusalem politics. Nevertheless, Josephus made a point of stylizing the Jerusalem of 66 as a functioning polis; a legitimate government had sent him to Galilee as a military leader, and to it he was also responsible. In the Bellum, Josephus enters the political arena only at this moment, and as strategos in Galilee he does what he can to help the cause of the insurgents succeed-until, under dramatic circumstances, he sides with the Romans. The account of the Vita, written later, is different: here Josephus, along with two other priests, is sent to Galilee by the “leading people in Jerusalem” with a secret mission: “so that we might persuade the evil elements to lay down their arms and teach that it is better to keep them available for the elite of the people.”

Strategically, Galilee was of great importance, since it was foreseeable that the Roman army would advance on Jerusalem from the north. In the Bellum, Josephus has numerous places fortified and trains his fighters in the Roman manner. Louis H. Feldman comments: Of course, it is possible that Josephus accomplished great military feats, but it is just as possible that he copied ancient military manuals when writing the Bellum, since his account of his own actions strikingly corresponds to the procedure recommended there.

The Vita tells how political opponents put Josephus in distress several times, but each time he turned the situation to his own advantage. In the spirit of his secret mission, the Vita is not about an effective defense of Galilee, but about keeping the population calm and waiting to see what the Roman army would do, and so its hero moves seemingly haphazardly from village to village for weeks.

What the historical Josephus did between December 66 and May 67 can only be conjectured. Seth Schwartz, for example, assumes that he was one of several Jewish warlords competing in Galilee, an “adventurer acting on his own” and thus less a representative of state order than a symptom of political chaos. There were armed groups in Galilee even before the war began. Josephus had tried to create a mercenary army out of these unorganized bands. He was relatively unsuccessful in doing so and had only a narrow power base with his militia of a few hundred people in the town of Tarichaeae on the Sea of Galilee, Schwartz says. He bases his analysis on the vita:

In the spring and summer of 67, three Roman legions arrived in Galilee, reinforced by auxiliaries and armies of client kings, totaling about 60,000 soldiers under the command of Vespasian. The insurgents could not face this superior force in battle. Josephus, however, probably really intended to stop the Roman army. After taking Gabara, Vespasian advanced toward Jotapata. Josephus came to meet him from Tiberias and entrenched himself in this mountain fortress. The decision to seek battle with Rome precisely here shows Josephus” military inexperience.

The defense of Jotapata is described in detail by Josephus in the Bellum. Jotapata withstood the siege for 47 days, but was finally conquered. What follows gives the impression of a literary fiction: Josephus “stole through the midst of the enemies” and jumped into a cistern, from there into a cave, where he met 40 noble Jotapataans. They persevered for two days, then their hiding place was betrayed. A Roman friend of Josephus delivered Vespasian”s offer: surrender in exchange for life. Josephus had now turned to his priesthood, his qualifications to interpret sacred writings and receive prophetic dreams. He prayed:

There has been no mention of prophetic dreams, and calling God to witness is not part of the prayer form, but of the oath form: These elements justify for the reader why Josephus must not die heroically, but survive. Josephus surrenders, mind you, not because resistance to Rome would be futile, but because he has a prophetic message to deliver. The 40 Jotapates, however, were determined to commit suicide. Josephus suggested that they let the lot decide who should be killed next. Josephus and a man he agreed should have been killed were the last to remain and surrendered to the Romans. That Josephus manipulated the lottery is an obvious suspicion; however, it is explicitly stated only in the medieval Old Slavonic translation of the Bellum.

In the Roman camp

According to Josephus, Vespasian went to Caesarea Maritima just a few days after the fall of Jotapata. There Josephus spent two years as a prisoner of war in chains. Since he was a usurper, legitimation by deities had great importance for Vespasian”s later emperorship. And he received such omina, among others from the God of the Jews.

Tacitus mentioned the oracle on Mount Carmel and omitted Josephus” prophecy. However, through mentions in Suetonius and Cassius Dio, it is likely that “Josephus” saying found its way into the official Roman omina list.” If one accepts the dating of Josephus” capture to 67, he addressed Vespasian as a future emperor at a time when Nero”s rule was faltering but Vespasian”s rise was not yet foreseeable. The text of the Bellum is corrupted; Reinhold Merkelbach proposes a conjecture and paraphrases Josephus” oracle-style saying thus:

It has been suggested that Josephus was only predicting military success for him, or that Vespasian already harbored such ambitions at the time and that the prophecy came about in a kind of creative collaboration between the commander and his prisoner.

As the account in Suetonius and Cassius Dio shows, Josephus had linked the fulfillment of his prophecy with his change of status in such a way that Vespasian had to release him in order to be able to use the prophecy for himself. Otherwise, Josephus” ability to predict the future would have been devalued. On July 1, 69, the legions stationed in Egypt proclaimed Vespasian emperor. The release of Josephus followed. His chain was cut with an axe to remove the stigma of imprisonment. Vespasian took him to Egypt in October 69 as a symbol of his legitimate claim to the throne. He stayed in Alexandria for about eight months, keeping his distance from the atrocities of the civil war and awaiting developments in Rome. Vespasian received further omina and appeared himself as a miracle worker. One sees in it staging and propaganda measures in favor of the future emperor. In this phase, there was probably little contact with Josephus, who used the time privately and married an Alexandrian woman.

With Titus, Josephus came from Egypt to Judea in the spring of 70 and witnessed the siege of Jerusalem. He served as an interpreter for the Romans and questioned defectors and prisoners. Josephus wrote that he was in danger from both warring parties. The Zealots tried to get hold of him, the traitor. On the other hand, some military personnel disapproved of Josephus being in the Roman camp because he brought bad luck.

Josephus put emphasis on the fact that he did not participate in looting in conquered Jerusalem. Titus had allowed him to take whatever he wanted from the ruins. He had, however, only freed captured Jerusalemites from slavery and received “sacred books” as gifts from the spoils of war. Steve Mason comments: An interest in books always distinguished Josephus, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple had added many a valuable manuscript to Josephus” private library. With the free petitioning of prisoners of war, Josephus proved to be an aristocratic benefactor of his friends. He was also able to save his brother Matthias in this way.

Writers in Flavian Rome

The population in the metropolis of Rome was very heterogeneous. Glen Bowersock highlights one immigrant group: elites from the provinces who were “transplanted” to Rome by members of the Roman administration to write literary works in the spirit of their patron. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote a monumental history of Rome, while Nicolaos of Damascus wrote a history of the world, which Josephus later used extensively. Both can be seen as role models for Josephus.

Josephus arrived in Rome in the early summer of 71. As one of many clients of the Flavian imperial house, his accommodation was taken care of. Since he did not live in the imperial residence on the Palatine, but in the Domus of the Flavians on the Quirinal, it cannot be concluded that Josephus had easy access to the imperial house and could exert political influence. Suetonius mentioned that Vespasian allotted one hundred silver denarii annually to Latin and Greek rhetors. It is believed that Josephus also benefited from this imperial pension. According to Zvi Yavetz, the perks Josephus listed in the Vita placed him among physicians, magicians, philosophers, and jesters – the less important people in Titus” entourage.

The triumph celebrated by Vespasian and Titus in Rome in 71 for their victory over Judea was described by Josephus in particularly colorful detail. It is the most comprehensive contemporary description of an imperial triumphal procession. For the large Jewish population of Rome, this event must have been difficult to bear. It is all the more astonishing that Josephus gave the festivities in the Bellum a cheerful note and presented the cult objects captured in the temple as the main attractions. Apparently he found some comfort in the fact that the show-bread table and menorah were later placed in a worthy location in the Templum Pacis. The temple curtain and the Torah scroll were kept in the imperial palace after the triumph, to the extent that Vespasian took them under his protection – if one tried to take anything positive from this. Josephus” description of the triumph in the Bellum emphasized the loyalty of the Flavians to tradition (the prayers and sacrifices that accompanied the triumphal procession, according to Josephus, happened exactly according to ancient Roman custom – that they belonged to the cult of Jupiter Capitolinus, he blanked out. One can assume that he, who had prophesied the emperorship to Vespasian, was also displayed in the triumphal procession; however, nothing is said about this in Josephus.

Hannah M. Cotton and Werner Eck draw the picture of a lonely and socially isolated Josephus in Rome; symptomatic of this is the dedication of three works in the 1990s to a patron named Epaphroditos. This could not have been Nero”s freedman of the same name, because he fell out of favor at about the same time as Josephus” works appeared. Probably Epaphroditos of Chaeronea is meant – highly educated and wealthy, but not a member of the socio-political elite.

Jonathan Price also suspects that Josephus did not find access to literary circles in the capital, if only because his Greek was not so flawless that he could have recited his own texts in these circles. Eran Almagor has a somewhat different opinion: “In the Second Sophistic, a high command of the language was a prerequisite. But non-native speakers could also be successful if they confidently addressed their role as outsiders and thus also the originality (or hybridity) of their work.

Tessa Rajak points out that when Josephus lived in Rome, he continued to have connections in the eastern Mediterranean: through his estates in Judea, but especially through his marriage to a distinguished Jewish woman from Crete. Josephus” work contains no information about the circumstances under which he met this woman or her family.

Marriages and children

Josephus mentioned his wife and mother in passing in a (literary) speech he gave to the defenders of besieged Jerusalem. Both were in the city and apparently died there. When Josephus was in Roman captivity, Vespasian arranged for him to marry “a native girl of the Caesarean women prisoners of war.” As a priest, Josephus should not have actually entered into marriage with a prisoner of war. This woman later separated from Josephus on her own initiative when he was released and accompanied Vespasian to Alexandria. He then entered into the third marriage in Alexandria. Josephus and the anonymous Alexandrian woman had three children, one of whom, a son Hyrcanus (born 7374), reached adulthood. Then residing in Rome, Josephus sent his wife away because he “disliked her character traits.” He married a fourth time; this marriage he describes as happy: his wife was “at home in Crete, but a Jew by birth , her character distinguished her above all women .” From this marriage came two sons named Justus (born 7677) and Simonides Agrippa (born 7879). It is no accident that Josephus conceals the names of the women in his family. This corresponds to the Roman custom of referring to women only by the name of their gens.

Last years of life

In the Vita, Josephus mentions the death of Herod Agrippa II. Photios I noted in the 9th century that Agrippa”s year of death was the “third year of Trajan”, i.e. the year 100. From this is derived the statement, often found in the literature, that Flavius Josephus died after 100 AD. However, many historians date the death of Agrippa to 9293. Then it is probable that Flavius Josephus died before the fall of Domitian (September 8, 96) or at least ended his writing activity. This is supported by the fact that there is no reference to the emperors Nerva or Trajan in his work.

Language skills

Josephus grew up bilingual Aramaic-Hebrew. He acquired a good knowledge of Greek in early childhood, but probably received no literary-rhetorical instruction. In his own estimation, he had a better command of Greek in writing than orally. His works are typical examples of Atticism, as it was cultivated as a reaction to Koine Greek in the imperial period. After the very good Greek of the Bellum, Antiquitates and Vita drop in quality; with Contra Apionem, a higher level of language is reached once again.

Since he lived in Rome, knowledge of Latin was indispensable for Josephus. He did not address it, but the circumstantial evidence speaks for it: all of Josephus” Greek writings show a strong influence of Latin, both on syntax and vocabulary. This remained constantly high, while the Aramaic coloring diminished over time.

Aramaic first

In the preface of the Bellum, Josephus mentioned that he had previously compiled and sent a writing about the Jewish War “for the inner-Asiatic non-Greeks in their native language.” This writing is not preserved, it is not mentioned or quoted anywhere else. It could be, for example, a group of Aramaic letters that Josephus addressed to relatives in the Parthian Empire, perhaps while the war was still in progress. Jonathan Price notes in this regard that Josephus sought his first audience in the East. He suspects that Josephus was also most likely to succeed later in Rome with readers with roots in the eastern Mediterranean.

Older research assumed that Josephus” works were commissioned by Flavian propaganda. However, a text written in Greek would have been easily understood in the Parthian Empire and its political message would have been easier to control. This makes an Aramaic propaganda writing implausible.

Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum)

Soon after his arrival in Rome (A.D. 71), Josephus, probably on his own initiative, began work on a work of history about the Jewish War. Collaborators “for the Greek language” supported him, as he later wrote in retrospect. Research opinions on the contribution of these collaborators differ widely: representatives of the maximum position assume that unknown persons with classical education would have contributed considerably to the text. A minimal position, on the other hand, would be the assumption that Josephus had his texts checked for linguistic errors before publication. In any case, the Bellum is not an extended translation from the Aramaic, but a work designed from the outset for a Roman audience.

If writing was his own idea, it does not mean that Josephus could or would write objectively about the war. Since he was in a client relationship with the Flavians, it was natural to portray them positively. “The Flavian house had to emerge from the conflict with the Jewish people as the untainted victor,” according to Werner Eck. Accordingly, the main blame lay with the sacrilegious Zealots, who increasingly defiled the temple and dragged the entire Jerusalem population down with them to their doom:

But Rome was to have a share of the blame for the outbreak of war. Josephus had a number of incompetent prefects appear in the Bellum because he could not dare criticize their superiors, the senatorial governors of Syria.

In the preface, Josephus professed to write meticulously accurate history in the manner of Thucydides, but also announced his intention to lament the misfortunes of his homeland-a clear break in style that may not have pleased every ancient reader. His dramatic-poetic historiography expanded the established form of depicting war to include the perspective of the suffering population. Blood flows in streams, corpses decay at the Sea of Galilee and in the alleys of Jerusalem. Josephus combined self-experience and symbolism to create impressive images of the atrocities of war: starving refugees greedily eat their fill and die of excess. Auxiliary soldiers slit open the bodies of defectors because they hoped to find gold coins in their entrails. The noble Jewess Maria slaughters her infant and cooks it.

The image of Titus in Josephus is ambivalent. The Bellum provides both illustrative material and excuses for the cruelty that was attributed to him. For example, Titus sends out daily detachments of horsemen to pick up poor Jerusalemites who have ventured out of the city in search of food. He has them tortured and then crucified within sight of the city. Titus had pity on these people, but he could not let them go, so many prisoners could not be guarded, and finally: their torturous death should make the defenders of Jerusalem give up. The Bellum maintains the fiction that (thanks to the clemency of Titus) everything could have turned out well, if only the Zealots had given in.

That Titus had wanted to spare the temple is a leitmotif throughout the entire work, while all other ancient sources suggest that Titus had the temple destroyed. In order to exonerate Titus from responsibility for the burning of the temple, Josephus accepted to portray the legionaries as undisciplined when advancing on the temple grounds. This, in turn, did not reflect well on Titus and his commanders. The majority of today”s historians, like Jacob Bernays and Theodor Mommsen, consider Josephus” account implausible and prefer Tacitus” version, which has been handed down by Sulpicius Severus. That this was the official version is also shown by a display board with a depiction of the burning of the temple, which was carried along during the triumphal procession. Tommaso Leoni represents the minority opinion: the temple had been burned down against the will of Titus by collective indiscipline of the soldiers, but after the capture of the city a commendation of the victorious army had been the only possibility. What had happened had been interpreted in retrospect as in accordance with orders.

Josephus circulated his work after completion in the usual way, distributing copies to influential people.

Titus was so taken with the Bellum that he declared it the authoritative account of the Jewish War and had it published with his signature, according to the Vita. James Rives suspects that Titus was increasingly interested in being seen as a gracious Caesar and therefore approved of the image Josephus created of him in the Bellum.

The last date mentioned in the book is the dedication of the Templum Pacis in the summer of 75. Since Vespasian died in June 79, Josephus” work was apparently completed enough before that date for him to present it to him.

Jewish Antiquities (Antiquitates Judaicae)

Josephus stated that he completed this extensive work in the 13th year of Domitian”s reign (9394 AD). He conceived the 20 books of the Jewish Antiquities on the model of the Roman Antiquities, which Dionysius of Halicarnassus had written a century before him, also 20 books. Antiquities (ἀρχαιολογία archaiología) here has the sense of early history.

The main theme of the Antiquitates is presented programmatically at the beginning: From the course of history, the reader can see that following the Torah (the “excellent legislation”) helps to lead a successful life (εὐδαιμονία eudaimonía “happiness in life”). According to Josephus, Jews and gentiles alike were to be guided by it. From creation to the eve of the war against Rome (66 AD), the story is told in chronological order. In doing so, Josephus initially followed the biblical account, some of whose material he rearranged. Although he claimed to have translated the sacred texts accurately, his own performance in the Antiquitates was not translation, but free retelling oriented to the taste of the audience. Language knowledge and access to the Hebrew text he probably had, but he used pre-existing Greek translations because that made his work much easier. He did not mark in Book 11 where his Bible paraphrase ends, thus giving the impression that the Antiquitates as a whole was a translation of Jewish sacred writings into Greek.

Josephus, in his account of the Hasmoneans (books 12-14), had to ward off the obvious idea that their struggle for freedom against the Seleucids in 167166 B.C. was comparable to the Zealots” rebellion against Rome in 66 A.D.. The most important source is the 1st Book of Maccabees (1 Macc), which was available to Josephus in Greek translation. This work was probably written down during the reign of John Hyrcanus or in the first years of Alexander Jannaeus (for 1 Macc the Hasmoneans were not a party competing with others, but fighters for “Israel”, their followers were the “people”, their domestic opponents all “godless”. Josephus claimed in the Vita to be related to the Hasmoneans, and gave his son the dynastic name Hyrcanus. But in the Antiquitates he removed the dynastic propaganda he read in 1 Macc. Josephus defined in Contra Apionem what, from his point of view, legitimized a war: “The other impairments we bear calmly, but as soon as someone wants to force us to touch our laws, we start wars even as the weaker ones, and to the extreme we endure in misfortune.” These motives Josephus entered in his paraphrase of 1 Macc. So the freedom to live according to the traditional laws was fought for – if necessary also to die. The image of Simon, the founder of the dynasty, is less euphoric than in 1 Macc; John Hyrcanus is appreciated as a ruler, but his governmental actions are criticized in detail. In Alexander Jannaeus, his cruelty and the increasing domestic tensions under his rule relativize the territorial gains he made with his aggressive foreign policy.

While he was able to use the world history of Nicolaos of Damascus for the reign of Herod (books 15-17), he did not have such a high-quality source available for the subsequent period. Book 18, which deals with the time of Jesus of Nazareth and the early church, is therefore “patchwork”. Regarding Pontius Pilate, who was already mentioned in the Bellum as one of the prefects of the antebellum period, Josephus had relatively much information. Daniel R. Schwartz suspects that he was able to consult archival documents in Rome that had been created in connection with Pilate”s hearing about his official conduct.

In historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, there is widespread consensus that the mention of Jesus of Nazareth (Testimonium Flavianum) was Christianly revised in late antiquity. The original text of Josephus cannot be reconstructed with certainty. However, according to Friedrich Wilhelm Horn, it is probable that Josephus wanted to say something at this point about the city Roman Christians, of whom he had heard during the years of his stay in Rome. He would also have had information about Jesus from earlier times, which reached him in Galilee or Jerusalem. Josephus was somewhat surprised to find that the “tribe of Christians” still worshipped Jesus, even though he had been crucified. However, the Testimonium Flavianum is not well contextualized. A complete Christian interpolation is unlikely, according to Horn, but cannot be ruled out.

John the Baptist taught an ethical way of life, according to Josephus” account. Josephus also reports, like the synoptic gospels, that Herod Antipas had the Baptist executed and that many contemporaries criticized this execution. Josephus did not establish a connection between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. In contrast to the Testimonium Flavianum, the authenticity of Josephus” description of the Baptist is very probable. This is supported by its early attestation to Origen, its typically Josephian vocabulary, and its content, which differs strikingly from the New Testament”s image of the Baptist.

From my life (Vita)

The writing of an autobiography came into vogue in the last decades of the Roman Republic; the Vita of Josephus “represents the oldest example of its genre.” The main section deals with the few months the author spent as a military leader in Galilee. The Vita omits the Roman siege of Jotapata and the capture of Josephus. Linguistically, the Vita is the worst of Josephus” works. What Josephus intended with this apparently hastily composed text is unclear. It is conceived as an appendix to the Antiquitates, so it was written down in 9394 AD or shortly thereafter. It can be assumed that the Vita, like this great work, was addressed to educated gentiles in Rome who found Jewish culture interesting. Throughout, the Vita reckons that the audience sympathizes with an aristocrat who has a paternalistic care for the common people and therefore tries to keep them quiet with tactical maneuvers.

Research has mostly presupposed that an opponent from the Galilean period reappeared years later in Rome and made accusations that got Josephus in trouble: Justus of Tiberias. However, Josephus was known in Rome to have been a military leader of the insurgents, and according to his own account in the Bellum, even a particularly dangerous opponent of Rome. Justus could not shock anyone in the 90s by claiming that the young Josephus had been anti-Roman. Steve Mason therefore proposes a different interpretation: that Josephus is constantly challenged and confronted with accusations by rivals in the Vita serves the purpose of highlighting the hero”s good character (ἦθος ẽthos) all the better. For rhetoric needs counter-positions that it can overcome argumentatively. In this respect, the Josephus of the Vita needs enemies. Uriel Rappaport, on the other hand, sees the self-representation in the Bellum and the Vita as rooted in the author”s personality. The latter had suffered from the fact that he had failed as a military leader and that his education had been only moderate according to Jewish and Roman criteria. That is why he created an ideal self in the literary figure “Josephus”: the person he would have liked to be.

On the Originality of Judaism (Contra Apionem)

The last work of Josephus, written between 9394 and 96 AD, deals with ancient hostility towards Jews. In the first part, Josephus stated that Judaism was a very ancient religion, although it was not mentioned in the works of Greek historians (which only showed their ignorance). His counterpart was the “classical Greeks”, not their descendants, Josephus” contemporaries. In order to defend his own culture, he attacked the cultural domination of this Greekdom. In the second main section, Josephus turned to the anti-Jewish stereotypes of individual ancient authors. Interspersed in this is a positive account of the Jewish condition (2:145-286), in which the voices of the critics are forgotten in the meantime. Thematically, this part touches on the presentation of the Mosaic law in the Antiquitates, but in Contra Apionem the Jewish polity is conceived less politically than philosophically. Josephus coined the term theocracy for it:

Josephus understood theocracy differently from today”s usage: a state in which political power resides with the clergy. “In the theocracy meant by Josephus, on the other hand, God exercises his rule ”directly,” as it were.” This polity is a literary entity, designed by Josephus with a Roman audience in mind and populated with “toga-wearing Jews” (John M. G. Barclay) who adhere to values that are actually ancient Roman: Love of country life, fidelity to traditional laws, reverence for the dead, restrictive sexual morality.

The topic of the prohibition of images shows how carefully Josephus chose his words. The opposing side had criticized Jews for not setting up statues in their synagogues for the emperors. Josephus conceded, “Well, Greeks and some others think it is good to set up images.” This, he said, Moses forbade the Jews to do. The typical Roman setting up of statues becomes the custom of “Greeks and some others” under the table. In Contra Apionem, the author repeatedly plays on a “Greek” stereotype: garrulous, fickle, unpredictable, and therefore opposed to legal thinking and dignity, Roman values (cf. Cicero”s rhetorical strategy in Pro Flacco). However, other tributes to the emperors and the people of the Romans were allowed, especially the sacrifices to the emperor. Josephus ignored that the temple had not existed for a good 20 years. He counterfactually claimed that sacrifices were made there daily for the emperor at the expense of all the Jews.

In preparation for Contra Apionem, Josephus had apparently intensively studied works by Jewish authors from Alexandria. He also gave his late work stylistic polish and a new, fresh vocabulary (numerous hapax legomena), which is striking in comparison with the plain Vita written shortly before.

Roman readers

If this information of Eusebius of Caesarea is at all historically usable, Josephus was probably known more for his prophecy of the emperorship for Vespasian than as an author. Indeed, traces of a contemporary pagan reception of his work are few. Occasional similarities between the Jewish War and Tacitus” Histories can also be explained by the fact that both authors accessed the same sources. The Neoplatonist Porphyrios quoted individual passages of the Bellum in his writing “On the Abstention from the Inspired”. Also the speeches of Libanios (4th century) possibly show knowledge of Josephus” works.

Christian readers

Josephus” works were frequently used by authors of the early church and probably only now, increasingly since the 3rd century, became more widely known. The following reasons can be given for the popularity of his writings among Christians:

The treatment of the work of Josephus corresponded to the ambivalent attitude of Christian authors toward Judaism as a whole, which on the one hand was claimed as part of their own tradition, and on the other hand was rejected. Unlike Philon of Alexandria, Josephus was not declared a Christian because his testimony about Jesus and the early church had more value if it was the vote of a non-Christian. Nevertheless, Jerome presented Josephus as a church writer in his Christian Literary History (De viris illustribus), and medieval library catalogs also classified Josephus” works with the church fathers. Even in the modern edition of Latin ecclesiastical writers Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, volume 37 was intended for the Latin translation of Josephus; of this only the partial volume 37.6 with the text of the Contra Apionem appeared.

The reception of Josephus in Latin happened in two ways: already in the 4th century a free paraphrase of the Bellum (Pseudo-Hegesippus) was written. This work interprets the destruction of Jerusalem as a divine judgment on the Jewish people. There are indeed passages in the Bellum where Josephus interprets the events of the war in this way, but Pseudo-Hegesippus emphasized this idea more strongly and, according to the analysis of Albert H. Bell, is less a Josephus retelling than an independent work of history. Somewhat more recent are the actual translations into Latin, which are available for the three major works but not for the Vita. The first to be translated was the Bellum. The translations of the Antiquitates and Contra Apionem followed; they were begun in Cassiodor”s monastery and completed in the mid-6th century.

There are 133 fully or partially preserved manuscripts of Josephus” works; the oldest date from the 9th-10th centuries. Entries in book lists and citations in florilegias also show how widespread the reading of Josephus was in the Middle Ages. Typically, the Testimonium Flavianum was given special emphasis in the text, such as by red ink. Josephus was a widely read author – against the background that only a small part of the Christians could read.

Peter Burke examined the reception of ancient historians since the advent of printing on the basis of the number of editions their works achieved. For Josephus” Bellum and Antiquitates, the following picture emerges: all Latin authors (among the Greek editions, Josephus occupies the first two places. In the middle of the 16th century, Bellum and Antiquitates reached their highest popularity. Josephus” works were also read significantly more often in vernacular translations than in Greek or Latin versions.

After the Council of Trent, Bible translations in the Roman Catholic area required the approval of the Holy Office of the Inquisition from 1559. After that, Italian editions of Josephus sold very well on the Venetian book market. They were apparently a kind of Bible substitute for many readers. In the 1590s, retellings of biblical history were also placed on the Index, but not the works of Josephus himself – at least not in Italy. The Spanish Inquisition was stricter and banned the Spanish translation of Antiquitates several times starting in 1559. This work probably appeared to the censor as a Rewritten Bible, while the Bellum remained a permitted reading in Spain.

William Whiston”s translation of Josephus, which has been reprinted again and again since its publication in 1737, became a classic in the English-speaking world. In strict Protestant circles, Whiston”s Josephus translation was the only permitted Sunday reading besides the Bible. This shows how strongly he was received as a Bible commentary and bridge between the Old and New Testaments.

Hrabanus Maurus quoted Josephus frequently, both directly and mediated through Eusebius of Caesarea and Beda Venerabilis; his biblical interpretation is a major source for the great standard commentary of the Glossa Ordinaria. Typical of the early medieval Christian reception of Josephus is that in addition to the reading of his works, his material was handed down in compendia: second- or third-hand Josephus. Josephus” descriptions shaped the image that people had of, for example, Solomon, Alexander the Great, or Herod, and the fact that he interpreted biblical persons Hellenistically as bringers of culture entered textbooks and thus became common knowledge. Walahfrid Strabo, among others, mentions that 30 Jews were sold into slavery for one denarius, corresponding to the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot received for his betrayal (talion punishment). Josephus refers several times to the enslavement of the survivors, but does not write that 30 people were worth only one denarius: an example of the free use of the Josephus text in the early Middle Ages.

After Josephus had been read less in the 10th-11th centuries, interest in his work increased by leaps and bounds in the 12th and 13th centuries in northwestern Europe. Most Josephus manuscripts, sometimes sumptuously illuminated copies, date from this period. Apparently, Josephus” works were considered indispensable in a good library. Book owners often include people who were connected with the teaching of schools, especially in Paris. Andrew of St. Victor and Petrus Comestor, two 12th century Victorians, made frequent use of Josephus” works. In an effort to comprehensively elucidate the literal meaning of the biblical text, they followed the school”s founder, Hugh of St. Victor. The intensive reading of Josephus was accompanied by Hebrew studies and the evaluation of other ancient Jewish as well as patristic texts. Comestor”s work Historia Scholastica, which Josephus quoted extensively, became the standard textbook for first-year students. Vernacular translations or adaptations conveyed the content to interested laymen as well.

Biblical scholarship today makes use of many other ancient texts besides Josephus; since the end of the 20th century, knowledge of ancient Judaism has been greatly enriched by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Martin Hengel summed up the lasting importance of Josephus for New Testament exegesis thus:

Jewish readers

Rabbinic literature ignored the person and work of Josephus. But this is nothing special, because other Greek-writing Jewish authors were not read either. The Talmud passes on the legend that Jochanan ben Zakkai prophesied the emperorship to the general Vespasian (Gittin 56a-b), which both Abraham Schalit and Anthony J. Saldarini used to make comparisons between Josephus and Jochanan ben Zakkai.

Only in the early Middle Ages is there evidence of a Jewish reception of Josephus” work. In the 10th century, someone under the name Joseph ben Gorion wrote in Hebrew in southern Italy an eclectic history of Judaism from the Babylonian Exile to the fall of Masada. This work is referred to as Josippon. He used several Latin sources, including Pseudo-Hegesippus. He edited the text in the following manner:

Several biblical commentators used the Josippon, while direct access to the work of Josephus is not demonstrable among them: Rashi, Saadiah Gaon, Joseph Caspi, Abraham ibn Ezra. The Josippon was widely read in Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean, which in turn was noticed by the Christian environment. Here the Josippon was considered in part the first work mentioned by Josephus and was therefore translated into Latin. The Italian humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attempted to read the Josippon in Hebrew because of its supposed high source value. Isaac Abrabanel, the Spanish-Jewish scholar, mostly quoted the Josippon in his work, but occasionally Josephus himself (this makes him unique among Jewish biblical commentators of the Middle Ages. Abrabanel”s work, in turn, was studied by Christian scholars and entered, for example, into the commentaries of William Whiston”s English translation of Josephus (1737).

Azaria dei Rossi read Josephus” works in Latin translation and opened them up as a source for ancient Jewish history (Meʾor ʿEnajim, 1573-1575). From now on, Jewish scholars also had access to Josephus, and not only to republications.

In 1577, a Hebrew translation of Contra Apionem appeared in Constantinople, the work of an otherwise unknown physician of Iberian origin named Samuel Schullam. This ancient apologia of Judaism seems to have appealed to Schullam very much; he translated the Latin text freely and updating it. The fact that Josephus thought, for example, that the non-Jewish peoples had learned the observance of the Sabbath, fasting, lamp-lighting and the food commandments from their Jewish neighbors made no sense to Schullam: this way of life distinguished Jews from their environment.

David de Pomis published an apologia in Venice in 1588 that drew heavily on Josephus” Antiquitates: If non-Jewish rulers in antiquity had shown benevolence to the Jewish community and treated them justly, of which he found many examples in Josephus, surely Christian authorities could do so all the more readily. De Pomis” work was placed on the Index, which prevented its reception for centuries.

Negative judgments about the personality of Josephus are the rule among both Jewish and Christian historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among those who simply considered Josephus a traitor are, for example, Heinrich Graetz and Richard Laqueur. Authors of the Haskalah such as Moshe Leib Lilienblum and Isaak Bär Levinsohn certainly saw Josephus with his Jewish-Roman identity as a role model, while at the same time sympathizing with the Zealots. Joseph Klausner”s judgment is unusual: he identified with the Zealots and saw parallels between their struggle for independence and the contemporary struggle against the British Mandate government. Nevertheless, he accepted Josephus” switch to the Roman camp, because the latter had been a scholar and not a fighter and had subordinated everything to his mission as a historian to record events for posterity.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, Josephus trials as improvisational theater were part of the program of Zionist educational work. The outcome for “Josephus” was quite open. Shlomo Avineri described one such event organized by the Herzliya branch of the socialist youth organization No”ar ha-Oved, in which there were two defendants: Josephus and Jochanan ben Zakkai – both of whom had left the resistance camp. After intense negotiations, both were acquitted: Josephus for his historical works and Jochanan ben Zakkai for his services to the survival of the Jewish people after the defeat.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls led to a reassessment of Josephus in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Daniel R. Schwartz explains: “The scrolls – sprung from the soil of Palestine just at the time of Israel”s declaration of independence – were useful in the Zionist argument as evidence that Jewish claims to Palestine were legitimate, but meaning was given to these texts only by the explanation and context that Josephus provided. There it was difficult to continue to condemn and vilify him.” The highly publicized excavations at Masada, led by Yigael Yadin, were also interpreted and popularized with massive recourse to the Bellum. “The moving story of the end of Masada, told by the deeply ambivalent Josephus, became Israel”s most powerful symbol and an indispensable national myth.” (Tessa Rajak)

Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the social climate in Israel changed. The patriotism of the founding years gave way, Schwartz says, to a more pragmatic view of military undertakings. A Jew of antiquity who thought a fight against Rome was futile could be considered a realist in the 1980s. When Abraham Schalit expressed himself in this sense in the early 1970s, it was still a lone voice.

Josephus images

The classic authorial image of the modern Josephus prints is found in William Whiston”s English translation of the Antiquitates (1737). Josephus, an aristocratic-looking old man with a white beard, is identified as an Oriental by a pseudo-Turkish turban with jewels and feather. Later editions of Josephus vary the headgear.

In 1891, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen acquired the very well preserved marble bust of a young man, a work of Roman antiquity. The provenance could not be clarified, even less the identity of the person depicted. Nevertheless, Frederik Poulsen declared in his 1925 museum catalog that the sitter was “undoubtedly a young Jew.” Robert Eisler identified him with Josephus in 1930, citing Eusebius of Caesarea, who had written that Josephus was honored in Rome by erecting a statue. Eisler, a cultural historian of Jewish origin, argued with classical anti-Semitic stereotypes by recognizing “Jewish” eyes in the depicted ancient person, but above all a non-Roman shape of the nose.

Josephus in literature

Josephus” work contributed numerous individual traits to the representation of biblical materials in world literature. Specifically Josephian are the much-received, non-biblical narratives of Herod and Mariamne I as well as Titus and Berenice.

The Bellum was received in the Middle Ages in vernacular mystery plays that interpreted the Jewish War as a deserved judgment for the crucifixion of Jesus. One example is Eustache Marcadé”s La Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Jhesu Crist. Here Josephus unusually appears as a military leader; other Vengeance plays give him the role of a physician or magician. The plot of these games is often as follows: a ruler figure is afflicted with a mysterious disease and can only be cured by carrying out God”s punishment on the Jews. Across Europe, Vengeance games were staged at great expense. The motif of the physician Josephus entered the Sachsenspiegel, where it established the royal right to protect Jews: “This peace was obtained from King Vespasian by a Jew named Josephus, when he cured his son Titus of the gout.”

Lion Feuchtwanger”s Josephus Trilogy (1932-1942) is the most important literary examination of the personality of Josephus. The author traces the protagonist”s path from Jewish nationalist to cosmopolite. His Josephus is enthusiastic about the biblical book of Kohelet and wants to educate his son in such a way that he represents “the perfect mixture of Greekism and Judaism”. But Domitian sees to it that Josephus” son is killed in a faked accident. Josephus then returns to Judea. There he dies:

In his novel The Source (1965), best-selling American author James A. Michener tells the story of the fictional town of Makor in Galilee in 15 episodes. In one episode, Josephus, “the best soldier the Jews ever had” (p. 436), leads the defense of Makor, escapes, goes to Jotapata, saves himself with forty survivors, manipulates the straws that determine the order of the killings so that he is left last, and saves his life by predicting the emperorship for Vespasian and Titus. He thus becomes “the traitor of the Jews of Galilee” (p. 463).

In Friedrich Schiller”s drama The Robbers (1782), there is the following tavern conversation (Act 1, Scene 2): Karl Moor looks up from his reading: “I am disgusted by this inkblotted seculum when I read about great men in my Plutarch.” Moritz Spiegelberg replies: “You must read Josephus. Read the Josephus, I beg of you.” The reading of the “robber” stories in the Bellum is here preparation for his own founding of a band of robbers. Since Schiller does not explain this allusion, an audience well acquainted with the Bellum is assumed. Alfred Bassermann suggested that Schiller found in the Bellum “the idea of a great robber”s life and at the same time the contrast of the two robber types, Spiegelberg”s and Moor”s.”

In the 20th century, several dramas were created that dealt with the personality of Josephus and his role in the Jewish War, which corresponds to the importance of this theme in Zionism.

Yitzchak Katzenelson wrote the Yiddish drama “Near Jerusalem” in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 (a Hebrew work “Among the Shepherds: A Night in the Vicinity of Jerusalem” (1931) was translated by him into Yiddish and updated to the ghetto situation. Among other figures of Jewish history, Josephus is invoked by a medium and questioned by Zionist pioneers (chalutzim): how are his political actions to be judged, and what do his writings mean for Judaism? Josephus appears as a completely assimilated Jew who has forgotten his name and his priestly origins. The ghetto situation is addressed several times: the obligation to bear witness to what happened for posterity, the nature of betrayal and the justification of the traitor, the meaning of the rebel movement and the attempted uprising. Katzenelson respectfully referred to the works of Josephus as Sforim (Yiddish: holy books), which belonged to the canon of Jewish literature. It is not known whether the planned performance took place as a Purim play.

Nathan Bistritzky-Agmon”s Hebrew drama “Jerusalem and Rome” (ירושלים ורומי Yerushalayim veRomi) was published as a book in 1939 and premiered by the Habimah Theater in 1941. Here Josephus advocates reconciliation between East and West; he asks Yochanan Ben Zakkai to return to Jerusalem and stop the Zealots. Both in Rome and in Jerusalem, he says, fanatics are in power. Feuchtwanger”s influence can be seen in Josephus” account. Shin Shalom published in 1956 in the collection “Ba-metaḥ hagavoah, nine stories and a drama” (במתח הגבוה, תשעה סיפורים ומחזה) a Hebrew drama about Josephus” changing sides in Jotapata, “The Cave of Josephus.” This is also a revised version of a work already published in 193435 under the same title.

Text research

The only surviving papyrus fragment with Josephus text, Papyrus Vindobonensis Graecus 29810 (late 3rd century AD), is a good illustration of the fact that the difference between the medieval manuscripts and the original text of Josephus is considerable: the fragment in the Austrian National Library comes from an edition of the Bellum and contains 112 words in whole or in part; nine times this text deviates from all the manuscripts available to Benedikt Niese for his scholarly text edition. Of the four works of Josephus, the Bellum is comparatively the best preserved.

Niese procured the edition of the Greek Josephus text that remains authoritative to this day, an edition with an extensive text-critical apparatus (Editio maior, 7 vols., 1885-1895) and an edition with a more concise apparatus that deviates in many cases (Editio minor, 6 vols., 1888-1895), which is considered his last-hand edition. Since then, about 50 manuscripts have become known that Niese has not yet been able to use. Translations or bilingual editions were produced in several European countries that made changes to Niese”s text. If this trend continues, it will become unclear to which Greek text experts refer in each case in their publications. Heinz Schreckenberg therefore believes that a new major critical text edition is urgently needed, or at least a revision of Niese”s work. Until then, according to Tommaso Leoni, Niese”s Editio maior offers, despite everything, the relatively best text of the Bellum, but this is sometimes hidden in the critical apparatus.

The textual corruptions in the Antiquitates are partly a result of medieval copyists approximating Josephus” Bible retelling to the Greek biblical text of the Septuagint. A French team led by Étienne Nodet has been working since 1992 on a new manuscript stemma for books 1 to 10 of the Antiquitates, with the result that two 11th-century manuscripts that Niese considered less important seem to offer the best text:

The Münster edition of the Vita offers a mixed text that differs from Niese”s Editio maior in that it incorporates the Codex Bononiensis Graecus 3548, which is in the University Library of Bologna. Although relatively late (14.15 century), it is classified as a witness of the best tradition.

Contra Apionem is the worst preserved work of Josephus. All Greek witnesses, even the indirect ones, depend on a codex in which several leaves were missing; this large gap in the text must be filled in with the help of the Latin translation. Niese assumed that all recent Greek manuscripts were 11th century copies of Codex Laurentianus 69,22. The Münster translation team (Folker Siegert, Heinz Schreckenberg, Manuel Vogel), on the other hand, evaluates the Codex Schleusingensis graecus 1 (15th-16th century, library of the Hennebergsche Gymnasium, Schleusingen) as a witness of a partially independent tradition. Arnoldus Arlenius had used this codex for the first edition of the Greek Josephus text printed in 1544. The readings of this printed edition that deviate from Laurentianus thus acquire greater weight; until then, they had been considered conjectures by Arlenius.

Archaeology in IsraelPalestine

Since the middle of the 19th century, Palestine researchers have been searching for ancient sites or buildings “with Josephus in one hand and a spade in the other” – a success story that continues to the present day, says Jürgen Zangenberg. But it is methodologically questionable, he said. “Any interpretation, especially of the supposedly only ”factual” passages, has to … start with the fact that Josephus is first and foremost an ancient historian.”

Just as Yigael Yadin harmonized the excavation findings from Masada with the account of Josephus, the excavator of Gamla, Shmarya Guttman, also found the account of the Roman conquest of this fortress in the Golan confirmed in many details. According to Benjamin Mazar, the findings of Israeli excavations along the southern and western perimeter walls of the Temple Mount since 1968 illustrate construction details of the Herodian Temple described in the Bellum and Antiquitates. More recent examples of archaeological features being interpreted with the aid of Josephus include the excavations at Jotapata (Mordechai Aviam, 1992-1994) and the identification of a palace and hippodrome at Tiberias (Yizhar Hirschfeld, Katharina Galor 2005).

The “credibility” of Josephus has been discussed several times in research. On the one hand, the archaeological evidence often confirms Josephus” statements or at least can be interpreted that way. On the other hand, there are examples where Josephus makes blatantly wrong statements, for example about distances, measurements of buildings or population sizes. This is partly explained by copyist errors. A well-known and difficult problem of research are Josephus” descriptions of the Third Wall, i.e. the outer northern city fortifications of Jerusalem. Michael Avi-Yonah characterized them as a jumble of impossible distances, disparate descriptions of the same events, and a chaotic use of Greek technical vocabulary. Kenneth Atkinson elaborated on contradictions between the excavation results at Gamla and Masada and the war account in the Bellum. It must be assumed, he said, that the Roman capture took place in a historically different way from that portrayed by Josephus. For example, due to the conditions on the mountain top, it is not at all possible that 9000 defenders, when the Roman army entered Gamla, threw themselves from there into the depths and thus committed collective suicide. Gamla was also weakly fortified and offered little resistance to Vespasian”s army. Even before this, Shaye Cohen had questioned the combination of archaeological evidence and Josephus” account of the end of Masada.

Postcolonial reading

Homi K. Bhabha advanced postcolonialism by arguing that colonists and colonized interact in complex ways. The rulers expect the inferiors to imitate their culture. The latter do so as well – but not properly, not completely. A basic contradiction of colonialism is that it wants to educate and civilize the colonized, but claims a permanent difference from them: In other words, natives can become Anglicized but never English.

The colonized, however, can creatively use the dominant culture for self-assertion (resistant adaptation). This approach makes it possible to read Josephus” work beyond the alternatives of Flavian propaganda and Jewish apologetics: Josephus and other historians with roots in the east of the empire sought to “tell their own story in an idiom that the majority culture(s) understood, but with primary reference to their own traditions-and for their own purposes.”

An example from the Bellum: Herod Agrippa II tries to dissuade the Jerusalemites from war against Rome by stating, in the style of imperial propaganda, that Rome rules the whole world. His speech has the known peoples of antiquity with their respective special abilities pass by; Rome has defeated them all (mimicry of a gentes-devictae list). However, Agrippa (or Josephus) attributes this not to the favor of Jupiter, but to the god of the defeated Jews. Thus, according to David A. Kaden, he destabilizes the dominant imperial discourse. One no longer really knows whether it is a Jew or a Roman speaking. Bhabha characterizes the situation of cultural border crossers with the term in-between-ness, roughly “sitting between the chairs.” When Josephus describes how he himself, on behalf of the Romans, gave a speech to the defenders in their native language in front of the wall of besieged Jerusalem, he embodies in-between-ness in his own person.

The best German translations and Greek-German editions are listed below. For other editions, see the main articles Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, and On the Originality of Judaism. Niese introduced the book-paragraph counting common in literature today, while editions of works based on an older Greek text have a book-chapter-section counting (e.g., Whiston”s English and Clementz”s German translations). For conversion, one can use the digital edition of the Niese text in the Perseus Collection.


Overview presentations

anthologies, compendia



  1. Flavius Josephus
  2. Josephus
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