Josephus by Steve Mason

Flavius Josephus was born Yosef in Jerusalem in 37 CE. The notorious emperor Gaius Caligula had just come to power, and Pontius Pilate finished a long term as prefect with responsibility for Judea. Yosef’s father Mattityahu belonged to Jerusalem’s upper priestly class, and the boy received a solid education in Hebrew and Greek literature. At twenty-six he was already a promising enough diplomat to undertake a sensitive mission to Rome. He succeeded, crediting Nero’s wife for her help. He returned to find Jerusalem in turmoil.

What role did Josephus have in the Jewish war with Rome?

The causes of the coming war with Rome and Josephus’s role in it would require a book to explore. In brief, a Roman governor’s raids on the treasury of Jerusalem’s wealthy temple triggered an explosion of outrage. Jews who complained, even those of high status, were crucified. The Jerusalemites retaliated by massacring an auxiliary garrison in their city. The offending soldiers were not legionaries, but men recruited from Jerusalem’s regional enemies, based in coastal Caesarea. Perhaps in retaliation, the citizens of Caesarea massacred or expelled their Jewish minority. This turmoil made a visit from legions, based a couple of weeks’ journey to the north, inevitable. By the time they reached Jerusalem, the citizens were furious and managed to ambush them, killing thousands. This made matters very serious. In early 67, Nero dispatched his trusted commander Vespasian to deal with Jerusalem. Vespasian took as assistant his son Titus, who was the same age as Josephus (about thirty).

While Jerusalem anxiously waited, young Josephus, who had already proven himself quite capable of negotiating with the Romans, was sent north to Galilee, where Roman forces would first arrive. He gives conflicting explanations of his aims there, but it is hard to doubt his personal courage. He tried to fortify Galilean towns to protect them, but Vespasian’s arrival forced him to flee to Tiberias, a lakeside retreat far from the warpath. Yet, when he learned that the little town of Iotapata was in peril from the legions, he rushed to help, perhaps thinking he could negotiate a safe solution. Vespasian soon overran the town, however, and Josephus was his prisoner. He claims that he was inspired to predict Vespasian’s rise to imperial power. If so, it didn’t help him: Vespasian clapped him in chains for two years.

The chains came off in mid-69, but Josephus soon had to go with Titus to the siege of Jerusalem (March to September, 70 CE), providing his local knowledge to the Roman commander. How willing he was we cannot know. We do know that after he reached Rome in 71 CE—arriving for the Flavians’ triumph, for their victory in Jerusalem—he began writing voluminously. And he wrote consistently to explain, defend, and even glorify the character, laws, and customs of the Judean people.

What did Josephus write about, and why did he write so much?

Josephus completed the Judean War (seven volumes) before Vespasian died in 79. He wrote in Greek, intending to combat anti-Judean accounts that were circulating in Rome, which imagined that the Flavians had easily conquered a barbarian enemy. To debunk this claim, Judean War charts a long history of close and happy Judean-Roman relations, from their beginnings 130 years earlier. He then portrays the destruction of Jerusalem not as the result of Jewish hatred of Rome or vice-versa, but as a tragedy resulting from a perfect storm of conditions in 66 CE. Throughout he stresses the admirable Judean character: death-defying and virtuous. His twenty-volume Antiquities, which followed in 93/94 CE, responded to the request of some intellectuals in Rome for a complete account of Judean origins, law, and history—from creation to the eve of the war. Josephus caps this with a fascinating autobiography describing his ancestry, formative years, and months in Galilee, all to demonstrate his outstanding character. An enjoyably combative two-volume essay, demonstrating the age and beauty of Judean laws and misleadingly known as Against Apion, completes the thirty-volume set.

Josephus’s writings would be preserved by Christians, from regrettable motives: as alleged proof that the Judean covenant ended with Jerusalem’s destruction. Nevertheless, alongside their value for interpretation of the Bible, they are now our indispensable guide to postbiblical history, the world of the New Testament, and life in Rome’s eastern provinces.

Steve Mason, "Josephus", n.p. [cited 2 Dec 2022]. Online:


Steve Mason

Steve Mason
Professor, University of Groningen

Steve Mason is Professor Emeritus of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures at the faculty of theology and religious studies of the University of Groningen. He is an expert in the history and literature of the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule, especially Roman Judaea, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and Christian-Jewish-Roman relations. He has authored and edited numerous books on Josephus.

Josephus was a Jewish historian writing from Rome in the late first century.

Did you know…?

  • When experts describe life in Roman Judea or the background of the New Testament there, they are likely taking this information from Josephus.
  • Josephus’s descriptions are crucial guides for archaeologists, suggesting both where to dig and how to interpret their finds.
  • In spite of his reputation as a traitor, Josephus is the only person we know of who, during Judea’s war against Rome, left a safe city to put himself in harm’s way.
  • Josephus’s works include a complete paraphrase of the Bible.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

A rebellion by the Jewish people against their Roman occupation, lasting from 66-73 C.E. and culminating with the destruction of the Temple. Also known as the First Jewish War or First Jewish Revolt.

A number of troops stationed in a particular location.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

the people from whom an individual is descended

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

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