Some readers and contributors at AATW may know that my MPhil research focussed on the Jews during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (during which time I also studied Biblical Hebrew). Since I am known here more for my comments on Biblical interpretation than politics, it may come as a surprise that my MPhil thesis is on political theory; the thesis is entitled Josephus and the Jewish Constitution in the Roman World ( In this thesis I discuss Josephus’ adaptation of Biblical material to Greek political philosophy in the context of Jewish communities within the Roman Diaspora. I would revise much of what I have written (including the prose style), but I believe some of the ideas from that thesis may be of interest here (and perhaps chez NEO).

This first post will introduce Josephus and his works, while subsequent ones will look at his political theory. Josephus was a member of the priestly Hasmonaean family, which had ruled Judea from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes till the rise of Herod the Great. As a priest, he had studied the Torah, in particular the laws governing priestly duties and ritual purity. According to his self-serving autobiography, during his formative years he felt it his moral duty to spend time with each of the main religious sects in Judea before making an informed decision as to whose doctrine he would follow. These were: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. He chose the sect of the Pharisees, who were distinguished from the Sadducees by their belief in: the authority of books besides the Torah (i.e. the Prophets); the resurrection of the just and the wicked; angels and demons; the Oral Law.

During the failed Judean Revolt of AD 66 to 70 (Masada fell in 73), he served as General of Galilee on the Judean side until the siege of Jotapata (Yodfat). The Romans besieged and stormed this town, at which point a group of rebels took refuge in a well or cistern below ground, Josephus among them. They were offered safety upon surrender, but the majority of the group were unwilling to yield. What follows next has been variously interpreted. As Josephus tells the story (and we have only his word on the matter), the group settled on suicide where one man would kill his neighbour and so on until the last two should kill each other or the last man kill himself. According to Josephus, God providentially arranged the order so that he should be the last man, and he then surrendered to the Romans, discerning the will of God. Later historians have wondered whether Josephus calculated how to obtain the outcome he desidered and orchestrated the affair himself, never intending to commit suicide.

Josephus served under Titus for the remainder of the war as an advisor, mediator, and translator (Vespasian, his father, having departed for Rome where he became emperor at the end of the civil wars that followed the overthrow and suicide of Nero). He personally witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and his account of those days is filled with much pathos and regret. The rest of his life was spent under imperial patronage, the resources of which allowed him to write the books for which he is famous in Christian circles, not least for his admission that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (or that people thought he was the Messiah, depending upon how the Greek is interpreted, and on the answer to the question of interpolation). The works of his which have survived (not including the Discourse on Hades, which is now attributed to Hippolytus of Rome) are: the Wars of the Jews  (Bellum Judaicum); the Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitates Judaicae); the Life (Vita); and the Against Apion (Contra Apionem).

Many scholars believe that Josephus composed his Wars of the Jews originally in Aramaic for dissemination within the Diaspora of the Parthian Empire. He subsequently translated it into Greek with the assistance of scribes and scholars provided by his imperial patrons. The bulk of the work narrates the course of the Judean Revolt up to the fall of Masada, but Josephus prefaces his account with an overview of the history of Judea from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes to the conversion of Judea from a client-kingdom under the Herodian dynasty to an imperial province under a procurator or prefect directly responsible to the emperor (as opposed to legates responsible to the Senate as in Achaea, Baetica, Africa, and so on). This work along with his Antiquities of the Jews provides us with important information regarding Judea in the time of Jesus.

The Antiquities of the Jews is presented as work of history, along the lines of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Polybius, from Creation to Josephus’ own day. In part it is an adaptation of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, but it also owes much to the work of secular historians and annalists, principally Nicolaus of Damascus, who worked in the administration of Herod the Great. The vast amount that Josephus writes about the Idumean client-king would have been much diminished if that courtier had not decided to write down the affairs of that age. Josephus was not a contemporary of Herod, and in the heated political climate of his own day, it was scarcely possible to find an unbiased response to the character and actions of that potentate. Even Augustus, as related by Macrobius in his Saturnalia, is said to have quipped, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

The Life and Against Apion are shorter works. The Life was intended as an apologia against the accusations of one Justus of Tiberias, who, like later historians, considered Josephus an opportunist and traitor; it seems to have been published as an appendix to the Antiquities of the Jews, and the majority of it is concerned with Josephus’ conduct during the revolt. The Against Apion was written as a defense against anti-Jewish sentiment in the empire (which surely increased following the Judean Revolt), principally in Alexandria, where there was a long-standing friction between the Jewish inhabitants of the city (who were among its earliest inhabitants) and the Macedonian and Egyptian elements. Much of the defense is taken up with representing the Jews as pious and philanthropic and with showing the antiquity of their nation by reference to notices in non-Jewish historical works accessible to Greco-Roman scholars.