Antiquities of the Jews

JosephusIn AD 94 Flavius Josephus, a romanized Jew, set out to write a history of the Jewish people aimed at an educated Graeco-Roman audience. Although he was an observant Jew who was born into a priestly family and even took part in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 66-73), Josephus soon came to recognize that resistance against the Roman Empire was futile and instead tried to reconciliate his Jewish faith with Graeco-Roman culture. In his Antiquities of the Jews Josephus seeks to present the history of his own people in a way to which this Graeco-Roman elite could relate, often going out of his way to emphasize similarities between Judaism and Graeco-Roman philosophy and to corroborate events mentioned in the Bible by referring to other Graeco-Roman historians. The Antiquities are interesting for many different reasons. This article will only scratch the surface.

Flavius Josephus
According to his autobiography Flavius Josephus, or Yosef ben Matityahu (AD 37-100), was the son of a Jewish priest named Matthew and his mother was allegedly descended from the royal house of the Hasmoneans, who ruled over Judea between 140 and 37 BC. He was an observant Jew of high standing, which may have been the reason why he was chosen as the leader of the Galilean forces during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-73. At this time Josephus was probably already well acquainted with Graeco-Roman culture and likely had some respect for it. He was also not a very zealous Jew, for when his troops were besieged inside the city of Yodfat he chose to surrender to the Romans instead of dying a martyrs death, like his fellow soldiers. When he was in Roman captivity, he used his reputation of being an oriental sage to predict Vespasian’s rise to Rome’s imperial throne. Vespasian was the Roman commander charged with suppressing the Jewish Revolt and he did eventually emerge as the victor after the Year of the Four Emperors (AD 69). Because Josephus’s ‘prophecy’ had come true, he gained Roman citizenship and was even adopted into the imperial Flavian family. He lived out his days as a prominent Graeco-Roman intellectual with an interesting exotic background. Because he was widely loathed among the Jews for betraying the Jewish Revolt and supporting the emperor who had destroyed the Second Temple, Josephus’s work was aimed mainly at his fellow Graeco-Roman intellectuals.

Graeco-Roman perceptions of the Jews
Josephus’s position as an observant Jew who embraced Graeco-Roman culture and had ties to the Roman imperial court was a very peculiar one. Although he probably wasn’t the only Jew who was sympathetic to Roman rule and Graeco-Roman culture, he is the only one who has left us his own writings. Besides, sympathy for the Roman Empire among the Jews must have plummeted after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Greek, the Romans and other inhabitants of the Roman Empire in general did not have a very favorable view of Jews. Although the educated ones among them sympathized with their belief in a single, abstract God, admired the antiquity of the Jewish people and saw the Jewish priests as mysterious oriental philosophers, they frowned upon their strange rituals like circumcision and their dietary laws. The idea that Jews hated the Gentiles was also current, already in this ancient time. Some historians, most noticeably the Egyptian priest Apion (30 BC – AD 48), were especially hostile to the Jews, accusing them of sacrificing Gentiles and denying their respectable long history by claiming that they had borrowed all of their ideas from surrounding peoples, like the Egyptians and the Chaldeans. Although Josephus admired Graeco-Roman culture, he also felt the need to defend his faith and the reputation of his people. In order to give the Graeco-Roman elite accurate information on the history of the Jews, he wrote his Antiquities.

Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Josephus on the Old Testamental Period
Antiquities of the Jews consists of 19 books (scrolls) spanning the history of the Jewish people from Creation up to the death of the Judean king Herod Agrippa in AD 44. The first 10 books follow the Biblical narrative very closely. As Josephus did see the Tanakh as the infallible word of God, he used it as a framework and rarely diverges from it. He does add some of his own information, however. When he talks about Noah’s Flood, he states that the Babylonian historian Berossus and many others mention this flood as well, thus linking the Jewish tradition to the traditions of other ancient peoples. He also connects the story of the Tower of Babel to the obscure king Nimrod, to whom only a passing reference is made in the Bible. According to Josephus, Nimrod was an arrogant king who ascribed the blessings of his reign to himself rather than to God and encouraged his subjects to rebel against God. This information is likely derived from Jewish oral traditions that originated after the Torah was first written down. When talking about Abraham, he claims that this patriarch was originally a Chaldean astrologer who taught mathematics and astronomy to the Egyptians. According to the Graeco-Roman scientists of his day, all science originated in Egypt. Thus Josephus elevates Abraham to the position of ‘father of science’ and connects him to the respected Chaldean astrologers, which goes way beyond Abraham’s position in the Bible. Although Josephus’s additions are not very reliable, they do give an interesting insight in the oral traditions of first century Judaism and the ways in which the Jews tried to connect their tradition to that of other major peoples.

Josephus on the Intertestamental Period
Although Jospehus’s comments on events also described in the Bible are not very reliable and do not add much new historical information, the credibility of Josephus as a historical source increases with his descriptions of the so-called Intertestamental Period, which encompassed books 11, 12 and 13. Since the historical narratives and prophecies of the Bible end around 400 BC, when the books of the Tanakh likely reached their final form, and the New Testament only starts with the birth of Christ, there is a period of 400 year of Jewish history on which little information has been preserved. During this period the Achaemenid Persians (539-330) and later the Hellenistic Ptolemies (312-198 BC) and Seleucids (198-140 BC) ruled over Judea, until they regained independence under the Hasmonean dynasty (140-37 BC). Because the Jews no longer had significant political power, they increasingly focused on expressing their identity through their peculiar monotheistic religion. They also tried to maintain friendly relations with their Hellenistic overlords, although the desecration of the Jewish Temple under Antiochus IV did lead to a violent revolt among the Jews. This period also saw the resettlement of many Jews in Hellenistic metropolises like Alexandria, Seleucia and Babylon. It is an interesting period on which Josephus is our most important source. His information seems to be mostly reliable, although it is of course presented from a religious Jewish perspective.

Josephus on the New Testamental Period
Josephus is the most comprehensive contemporary source on first century AD Judea. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us valuable additional information on Jewish and Christian thought during the first century BC, Josephus still serves as an important chronological framework. In his writings on the sects within first century Judaism, Josephus again attempts to link Judaism to Hellenistic philosophy. He identifies three major sects – the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes – and compares them to the three major Hellenisitic philosophies – Stoics, Epicureans and Pythagoreans, respectively – and a fourth sect that, according to him, was alien to Judaism: the Zealots. According to Josephus, the Zealots alone were responsible for the Jewish Revolt and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple. Josephus’s division of first century Judaism in only three or four sects is a gross oversimplification, however, meant to fit the Jewish religion into a Graeco-Roman framework.

Sermon of the Mount

Josephus on Jesus
Reading Josephus’s writings on the New Testamental Period makes one realize how small a role Christianity played during the early first century. Most major players from the New Testament are not mentioned at all and a description of Jesus’s life story is nowhere to be found. Josephus does mention John the Baptist and his execution at the hands of Herod Antipas (18.5.2), however, and ‘James, the brother of Jesus, who is also known as Christ’ (20.9.1). The fact that Josephus doesn’t elaborate on who Jesus was implies that he was known to at least some Graeco-Roman intellectuals. Furthermore, the fact that ‘James, the brother of Jesus’ is not portrayed in a positive way implies that this passage is not a later Christian interpolation. This passage provides just enough evidence to independently confirm Jesus’s existence. More controversial is the so-called Testimonium Flavium (18.3.3), in which Josephus describes Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) who proclaimed the Truth and rose from the death. Some parts of this passage are too Christian in nature to be attributed to Josephus and must have been added by Christian copyists. This passage would imply that Josephus himself was a Christian, which is unlikely and makes one wonder why he did not tell us more about Jesus. However, some parts of this passage, like the fact that he was known for his miracles, that he proclaimed ‘good news’ and that he died on the cross, may be authentic.

All in all, Antiquities of the Jews is interesting for many different reasons. They give us an insight in Jewish oral traditions from the first century AD and in the ways in which Jews tried to reconcile their religion with Graeco-Roman culture and other traditions. They also provide us with rare information on the Intertestamental Period and first century AD Judea, including two mentions of Jesus himself. Josephus’s work spans thousands of years of history, although much of it is mythical, and encompasses several regions of the ancient world, like Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome beside of course Judea itself. For these reasons the Antiquities are a goldmine to historians from various subdisciplines. The value of Josephus’s work is therefore greater then he himself probably could have imagined.