Although Josephus (also known as Flavius Josephus) remained true to the Jewish faith throughout his life, he owes his fame as a writer to Christianity. Christian monks copied and distributed his work. Thanks to them, his books have survived the centuries.
They did this for three reasons:
1. Josephus told the stories from the Old Testament in a new and (for the first century) contemporary way.
2. In line with the Christian view, he blamed the Jews for the destruction of their temple and the fall of Jerusalem.
3. Apart from the four Biblical evangelists, he was the only first-century writer who related about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Especially the latter made him famous. Although there is doubt about the authenticity of the passage in question, it earned him the nickname “the fifth evangelist.”
the life of Josephus
Besides Jezus, Josephus is the most famous first-century Jew. That is why it is remarkable that so few sources about his life have survived. All we know about him, we derive from his own oeuvre. The Talmudic literature treated him with silent contempt. And the only Greek or Roman writers who mentioned his name were of a later period. Furthermore, they did nothing but quote from Josephus’ own work.
Josephus’ life consisted of three parts:
1. his youth and priesthood;
2. his activities during the Jewish War;
3. his life as a writer.
About the first period, we only know something from his autobiography Vita Iosephi. In it, we read that his real name was Yosef ben Matityahu and that he descended from a prominent Jerusalem family. Like his father, grandfather, and further ancestors, he was predestined to serve as a priest in the Jewish temple. And he did this, although not immediately. After the seminary, he first lived in the desert for a few years as a pupil of the hermit Bannus. Only then was he ordained a priest.
the reliability of Josephus’ work
In his biography, Josephus boasted that at the age of fourteen he was already famous for his erudition and knowledge of the Torah. “The high priests and notables of the city constantly consulted me on complex matters in our laws.” This might be true, but – I say it straight away – Josephus was not the most trustworthy writer in classical antiquity, especially not concerning himself.
Josephus wrote Vita Iosephi as an apology. The work shows that the other Jews hated him for betraying them scandalously during the Jewish war. Josephus tried to refute those allegations, but he did so unsuccessfully. The Jewish war remains a dark chapter in his life. I write more about that on the page “Josephus’ betrayal“. Below I will limit myself to the time he spent in Rome after the war.
Josephus as a historian
After the Jewish war, Josephus fled to Rome. There, Emperor Vespasian appointed him “imperial historian”. Josephus’ oeuvre must be read in that context: he was the emperor’s mouthpiece. The first work he wrote was an account of the Jewish war. It consisted of seven scrolls (about 450 pages) and was downright propagandistic. The Jews were to blame for the war, not Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus. About Titus, who had annihilated Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, he wrote: “How often did Titus, in his desire to save the city and the temple, appeal the warring factions to an agreement“.
His next work was his magnum opus. Although Josephus wrote it in Greek, it is known by the Latin name Antiquitates Judaicae. It covers twenty scrolls and describes the history of Judaism from Adam and Eve up to the Jewish war. Most of the stories stem from the Torah and have only been redrafted by Josephus. For first-century Judean history, though, the Antiquitates is often our only source.
the fifth evangelist
The two best-known passages from Antiquitates Judaicae are about Jesus and his family.
“This Ananus […] convened a court and had the brother of the Jesus called Christ – James was his name – and some others brought before him. He accused them of breaking the law and had them stoned to death.”
“In those days Jesus lived, a wise man, if you can call him a man. For he performed miracles and taught people, who were delighted to receive the truth. Many Jews and Hellenes came to him. He was the Christ. Even after Pilate had condemned him to death by crucifixion at the request of prominent Jews, those who had been the first to receive his love remained faithful to him. And he appeared to them, on the third day, alive again.”
Josephus was the only non-Biblical contemporary to write about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As mentioned, he is therefore called the fifth evangelist. However, science is not sure whether that is justified. The problem with classical texts is that they survived the Middle Ages in Christian monasteries, where they were copied for preservation and exchange. It is conceivable that among those copyists there was a monk whose love for Jesus was greater than his love for the truth.
Numerous scholars have commented on the authenticity of both passages. The two most extreme points of view can be easily guessed: 1. Josephus has written both passages literally this way; versus 2. they are forgeries that were inserted later. The vast majority of scholars are somewhere in between. They assume that the passages written by Josephus were shorter and that Christian copyists subsequently supplemented them.
Josephus in my novel
Of all the characters in my novel The Third Temple, Josephus is the least sympathetic. Yet he fascinates me. He is everything I am not and that makes him dark and intriguing. He was also the character that took me the most effort. In the first sketches I wrote, I was unable to grasp his personality. It was only when I realized that he resembled a director I had worked with that I was able to portray him convincingly.
The first version of the novel I had written as an apology. Although Josephus’ actions were questionable, I felt that he had acted with good intentions. Therefore, I wished to excuse him and tried to portray a sympathetic character. However, the more I learned about Josephus, the less I succeeded. Eventually, I had to concede: the Jews were right in their judgment of Josephus. As a result, I had to completely rewrite my draft as the new perspective affected every detail of his personality.
As an example of such a detail, I quote a passage from Vita Iosephi:
“Later I married a Jewish woman from Crete. Her parents were of good descent and well respected in their environment. Among other women, her qualities stood out, as would show later in her life. She bore me two sons, Justus, the elder, and Simonides, whom we gave the cognomen Agrippa.”
This quote is typical of Josephus. It is a detached and loveless description of someone who was his life partner after all. He didn’t even bother to mention her name. I have left it like that in my novel. I could have made up a name for her, of course, but I felt that by leaving her anonymous I did more justice to the essence of their relationship.