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Josephus, the Great Historian

Josephus, the Great Historian

For the past 20 years I have consistently heard one preacher or Bible teacher after another refer to or quote some guy named Josephus in order to explain something in the Bible. The interesting thing about that is that he was not a Christian. He was a Jew born in 37 AD in Jerusalem who lived in both Judea and Rome. He was both a citizen of Israel and a citizen of Rome. What is it about this guy that makes him so important to Christians since he can not be found in the Bible anywhere? Josephus was a historian whose writings from the first century have provided wonderful extra-biblical material and proofs for the historical accuracy of the events and people in the Bible. He fashioned himself as a priest, a soldier, and a scholar. Josephus offers a lot of information about individuals, groups, customs, and geographical places. Do you wonder who the Sadducees, Pharisees, or Essenes were that were mentioned in the Bible but not fully explained? Josephus is your man to fill in the blanks. Have you got an unruly friend who doubts the accuracy of the Bible? Josephus may come to your rescue. Do you wonder what went on during the 400-500 years between the Old and New Testaments? Josephus wrote a history of the Jews during that period. What makes him so important is that he is the only Jewish historian whose works have survived intact from the first century (besides the writers of the Bible).

Flavius Josephus (his Roman name) was born in 37 AD and named Yosef Ben Matityahu, or Joseph son of Matthew in English. He was born into an aristocratic family related to the Maccabeans and thus the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings. He was well educated and well connected. He studied all three of the Jewish religious/political parties which were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. He chose to be a Pharisee because he thought it would provide the highest opportunity for advancement. This choice at an early age was consistent with his opportunistic perspective for the rest of his life. He was sent to Rome in 64 AD to negotiate the release of some Jewish priests who had been held in prison there. His stay in Rome helped him learn and understand Roman culture, philosophy, and ambitions. He returned to Israel in 66 AD to find rebellion brewing against the Roman occupation. Josephus warned against it, but the tide of resentment was unstoppable. Therefore he joined the zealots in rebellion against Rome, and was named the Commander of Jewish forces in the Galilean area.

Like the Kamikaze Pilot Who Flew 50 Missions

Initially the Jews were very successful against the Roman occupation forces, but then General Vespasian brought an entire army from Antioch, Syria and crushed them. Vespasian invaded the Galilean area in 67 AD. Josephus and his rebels holed up in a walled city fortress called Jotapata (also called Yodfat). They were besieged by the Romans for six weeks until they finally broke through and started a great slaughter of the Jewish inhabitants. Josephus and forty of his men hid in a cave or possibly a cistern until they could hold out no longer. His companions refused to surrender and entered into a suicide pact. Josephus suggested a method of collective suicide whereby they would draw lots and kill each other one by one. Somehow (since it was his idea, I think he used slight of hand) Josephus and his friend ended up as sole survivors. When it got down to the two of them, Josephus convinced the other guy to let him negotiate a surrender with the Romans. Knowing the Roman vanity, ambitions, and superstitions, Josephus told them he was a prophet, an oracle who knew the future of General Vespasian. Hearing this, Vespasian sent for him to receive the prophecy. With great shrewdness he ingratiated himself to Vespasian by quoting a well known oracle that a world ruler would arise from Judea and Jerusalem. Josephus asserted that the world ruler referred to Vespasian, and both he and his son Titus would become the Emperor of Rome. Intrigued by this, Vespasian spared his life. The prophecy of becoming the Emperor came true in 69 AD so he rewarded Josephus and freed him from slavery. Vespasian and Titus adopted Josephus into their family, the Flavians, thus his name was changed to Flavius Josephus. When Vespasian returned to Rome to become the Emperor, Titus, his son took over command of the Roman army in Israel. Josephus corroborated with the Romans as a guide, advisor, and negotiator with the Jews.

The Fall of Jerusalem

Still standing in Rome today is the Arch of Titus, depicting the sack of Jerusalem and the Temple. On the inside wall of the Arch of Titus is an engraving of Roman soldiers carrying off the Temple artifacts they looted from the Temple like the Menorah. Titus surrounded Jerusalem in March/April of 70 AD. He put three legions on the western side and a fourth on the Mount of Olives to the east. He allowed pilgrims to enter for the Passover, but then refused to let them leave in order to put more pressure on the food supply. Titus sent Josephus to negotiate a surrender, but the stubborn defenders would not have it. In May Titus began destroying the outer wall on the northeast side with a goal of capturing the Fortress of Antonia adjacent to the Temple on its north side. After breaking down the outer wall and the second wall, Titus sent Josephus in again to negotiate a surrender, but he failed again. During the months of siege the Jewish defenders were constantly sending out raiding parties to harass and kill the Romans. This tactic enraged the Roman soldiers who became very eager to get inside and slaughter the Jews. In July the Romans launched a secret night attack and succeeded in taking the Antonia Fortress. From here they attacked the Temple Mount. The fighting eventually caused a tremendous fire (probably a lot of oil was used along with fireballs thrown over the wall). The Temple was destroyed by fire which eventually spread to the city. The Romans quickly crushed the remaining resistance. Some Jews escaped through tunnels while others made a last stand in the Upper City. The city was completely taken and under Roman control by September 7, 70 AD.

Titus took the treasures out of the destroyed Temple back to Rome. Titus gave orders to demolish the entire city and Temple. The soldiers even pried up the stones in the burned out Temple looking for gold. Josephus had acted as a mediator for the Romans, and afterward wrote: “Truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judea and the beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste.” Josephus claimed that over a million people were killed during the siege.
To the Victor Go the Spoils and Glory

After the fall of Jerusalem and Masada, Josephus went to Rome with Titus and took part in his great triumphal parade into Rome. Josephus was given, for his service to the Emperor, the privilege of Roman citizenship, and was granted an annual stipend, and given lands in Judea. Titus succeeded Vespasian as Emperor of Rome and his brother Domitian succeeded him. Both held Josephus in high regard and favor.

Josephus the Scholar

Now Josephus entered the final chapter of his life as a scholar, author, and noted historian. He was allowed to devote himself to his literary work until his death around 100 AD. Four of his many literary works were well preserved over the last 2000 years so that reliable copies are available to us today. He first wrote a history of the Jewish rebellion from 66 AD to 73 AD. It actually begins with the period of the Maccabees and concludes with the fall of Jerusalem, the mopping up campaign, and the victory celebrations in Rome. Josephus was criticized by Jews for being pro-Roman, but he claimed to be writing to counter anti-Jewish accounts. This seven volume work entitled The Jewish War was published in 78 AD in Rome.

Another of his important literary works is The Jewish Antiquities. This was a 21 volume work published in 94 AD. In it he gave the history of the Jews from the creation account to the revolt of 66 AD. He quoted the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Test.), numerous Greek authors, and the traditional explanations current in the first century. In his history of the first century, he gives dates which we otherwise would not have, and names many of the people, places, and events that are in the Bible. Three of the volumes are devoted to Herod the Great (the king of Judea when Christ was born). Most importantly, in volume 18, he mentioned Jesus the Christ who was a miracle worker, a teacher, popular among Jews and Gentiles, condemned by Pilate by the accusation of the Jewish leaders, and then crucified. He went on to write that on the third day Jesus appeared to His followers as prophets foretold along with a thousand other marvelous things. Josephus went on to write that, “in the present day (94 AD) those who call themselves Christians continue to believe.” Josephus confirmed the historical existence of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the nature of Christ’s ministry, the activities of his disciples in forming the church, as well as the accuracy of the Bible about names, places, dates, and events. Josephus mentioned Jesus again in another chapter. He wrote that the high priest illegally had James the brother of Jesus stoned. Again in this section Josephus wrote that Jesus was the so called Messiah. These references are so clear that critics have tried to claim that someone added them years later. This is countered by the facts that they are found in all surviving manuscripts, quoted by the early church fathers, and the vocabulary and style are consistent with Josephus.

Self proclaimed experts would have us believe that evidence of Jesus and his ministry can be found only in the Bible. They constantly claim that there is no evidence for the names, places, and events that occur in the Bible, yet God has provided all the evidence we need.

Picture of About the Author: Charlie Taylor
About the Author: Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor grew up in Dallas, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Business School and went into the commercial real estate business for about twenty years before enrolling in and graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary with honors.

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