Joseph ben Matthias ha-Cohen, commonly known as Josephus, was a Jew, born in A.D. 37 to an aristocratic priestly family. His native language was Aramaic, although he would have known Hebrew well, and all of his surviving writings are in Greek. At different times, his religious interests led him to study or affiliate with the Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees, the three major Jewish factions. A general during the early days of the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-73, he was captured by the Romans at the siege of Jotapata in Galilee and promptly changed sides, becoming a client of the future Flavian emperor Vespasian, receiving Roman citizenship, and taking the name Flavius Josephus.
His literary works include Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, Against Apion, and an autobiography. The first two are frequently read by students of the Bible because of information they provide about Jewish history and events surrounding the life of Christ and the apostles. Jewish War, however, is primarily a work of classical historiography and must be evaluated as such. In it, Josephus sought to explain why God allowed the Romans to defeat the Jews and destroy the temple. In retrospect, Josephus saw the rebellion as largely the result of the actions of political revolutionaries whom he saw as little more than bandits who were hostile to Josephus’ own class, the Jewish aristocracy. Josephus also sought to defend his own patrons, the Flavian emperors Vespasian and Titus, suggesting, for instance, that when Titus captured Jerusalem in A.D. 70, he wanted to spare the temple, but a Roman soldier, acting on his own, threw a burning brand into the sanctuary. The famous last words that Josephus put in the mouth of Eleazar on Masada is a typical rhetorical speech, and the suicide of the Zealots there has parallels in Greek and Roman historiography.
In later years, Josephus felt the need to defend the reputation and status of the Jewish people. Jewish Antiquities seems to be a subgenre of history sometimes called “apologetic historiography,” a type of history writing that seeks to defend and explain its subject to a larger, dominant culture. In it, Josephus stresses the antiquity of the Jewish people and the nobility of their traditions. Later sections of this work that cover some of the same material found in Jewish War often represent these episodes very differently. Consequently, although many readers today tend to accept his works uncritically, we must remember how his works changed over time as a result of changing political and personal circumstances.
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