Josephus—Historian Well-suited to His Subject
THE Middle East is a focal point of international interest today, as it was 2,000 years ago. Then, as now, it was the home of a Jewish state surrounded by hostile neighbors in which religious feelings mixed with nationalistic aspirations ran high. Then, as now, the Middle East played a vital role in the world economy. (Egyptian grain was used to feed the population of ancient Rome.) Then, too, this politically sensitive area was a gateway between the Roman Empire and her rivals.
In the midst of these circumstances, prophecies were uttered regarding that Jewish nation. These prophecies were to be fulfilled in remarkable detail. It was foretold, for example, that the city of Jerusalem would be surrounded—first by encamped armies and then by a fortification of pointed stakes—and that the city would fall to its enemies after a bitter struggle, marked by famine, pestilence, and great cruelty. It was predicted that the much-admired temple at Jerusalem, recently enlarged and beautified, would be utterly demolished.
Why Should We Be Interested?
The precise fulfillment of these prophecies 37 years after they were given makes them of keen interest to observers of the world political scene today. This is especially true because Bible students see that there will be a like but major fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies that is to affect the inhabitants of all the earth today.—Luke 19:43, 44; 21:5-35.
But all of this happened over 1,900 years ago. How do we know that Jesus’ prophecies regarding Jerusalem were fulfilled in minute detail? Our knowledge of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in the year 70 C.E. is dependent to a considerable extent on the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his book The Wars of the Jews he reports on events foretold by Jesus, although there is no evidence that Josephus was himself a Christian, or even that he was familiar with Jesus’ prophecies.
Josephus tells us, for example, that the Roman general Titus built a fortification of pointed stakes to hasten the arrival of famine conditions in besieged Jerusalem, just as Jesus had predicted. (Jesus said: “Your enemies will build around you a fortification with pointed stakes and will encircle you and distress you from every side.”) Josephus speaks at length of the terrible straits to which the inhabitants of the city were reduced by the famine, pestilence, and the bloodshed they endured, all of which Jesus had spoken of. (“There will be . . . pestilences and food shortages.” “They will fall by the edge of the sword.”) He tells us of the razing of the temple to its foundations, without a stone left upon a stone, precisely as Jesus predicted. (“Not a stone upon a stone will be left here and not thrown down.”)
Who Was Flavius Josephus?
Just who was this Jewish historian who has come down to us with the Roman family name “Flavius”? Was he really in a position to give us accurate information on events in first-century Judea? Can we trust what he says?
First, it should be noted that Josephus was not writing dead history from the vantage point of some imperial library; he was writing of the events of his day. Indeed, he was an eyewitness of most of the events he chronicled. His account is the more fascinating because he served actively during the Jewish-Roman war on both sides, beginning as a general of the Jewish forces in Galilee, and ending as an adviser to General Titus. So close did his friendship with Titus and his father Vespasian become that Josephus later adopted their family name, Flavius, which is why he is known to us as Flavius Josephus, and not by his Jewish name, Joseph ben Matthias.
Born a few years after Jesus’ death, Josephus became a keen observer of political trends. He was of noble birth, a member of the religious sect of the Pharisees and had family connections with the more aristocratic sect of the Sadducees. He tells us that at the age of 26 he was sent to Rome as part of a group to secure the release of certain Jewish priests, who had been sent in bonds to Caesar by the Roman procurator Felix on “small and trifling” charges. This instance recalls to readers of the Bible the difficulty that the apostle Paul had with this same Felix, who kept him imprisoned for two years, hoping for a bribe. (Acts 24:27) While in Rome, young Josephus formed a friendship with none other than the wife of Emperor Nero, the Empress Poppea, who intervened to free his friends.
When Josephus returned to Jerusalem, full of admiration for Roman culture and military power, he was aghast to find the Jewish nation more and more bent on war with the Romans. Apparently hoping to be in a position to negotiate with the Romans, Josephus accepted an assignment from the Jewish moderates in Jerusalem to go to Galilee as a sort of military governor-general. While there he busied himself fortifying the cities of Galilee, organizing the local troops on the Roman model, and fighting off all sorts of plots laid against him by local Zealots.
A Bold and Cunning Character
The personality of Josephus is a study in cunning. This can be seen by the way he handled matters when the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee revolted against his authority and expelled him. Lacking the forces to march against the city, Josephus had his supporters each take a ship and sail it across to Tiberias. Josephus barely had enough men to sail the 230 ships he commandeered, but the people of Tiberias did not know that, and thought the ships were full of soldiers. Bluffing all the way, he frightened the people into surrender with no loss of life.
Soon the Roman general Vespasian invaded Galilee with 60,000 men to avenge the humiliation of Cestius Gallus back in 66 C.E. Vespasian finally cornered Josephus in the little mountain town of Jotapata, which fell after a fierce siege of 47 days. Josephus and 40 other survivors hid in a cave. When the hiding place was discovered, the Romans sent word that Josephus’ life would be spared if he would surrender.
This was tempting to Josephus, but greatly displeased his men, who had made up their minds to conclude a suicide pact. Pretending to go along with the idea, Josephus proposed that lots be chosen to determine the order in which the men would kill one another. Some suspect that Josephus “loaded the dice,” because at the end only he and one other survivor remained, at which point Josephus persuaded the fellow to surrender to the Romans with him.
After being taken captive, Josephus boldly flattered the superstitious Vespasian by claiming to be a prophet, and prophesying that Vespasian was to be ruler of the world. Vespasian was sufficiently impressed to change his plans to send Josephus to Nero. Instead, he kept his prisoner guarded to see what would happen. In 69 C.E. when Vespasian was acclaimed emperor, he remembered Josephus’ prophecy of two years previous and Josephus from that time on became an intimate friend and adviser to the Flavian family.
When Vespasian went to Rome to take over the empire, Josephus went with Titus, Vespasian’s son, to finish the war against the Jews by taking Jerusalem. He served Titus as an adviser on Jewish tactics, and as a tool of Roman propaganda, risked his life before the walls of Jerusalem as he called on his people to surrender.
It was during this period that Josephus was able to see with his own eyes the events that proved the truth of Jesus’ notable prophecy against Jerusalem. Jesus had foretold “great necessity upon the land and wrath on this people,” and Josephus made note of the wrath of the Romans, who had originally been inclined to be lenient with the Jews, but had been infuriated by the unwillingness of the Jews to yield.—Luke 21:23.
When the city fell after a relatively short siege of four and a half months, the Roman soldiers killed until they were too tired to kill any more. “They slew those whom they overtook without mercy, and set fire to the houses whither the Jews had fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is, of such as died by the famine . . . they ran everyone through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood.”
It is of interest to note that not only the ferocity, but the very brevity of the siege of Jerusalem had been predicted by Jesus when he said: “In fact, unless those days were cut short, no flesh would be saved.” (Matt. 24:22) During the siege, Josephus watched in numbing horror as the Jews pitched 600,000 bodies over the walls of the city, victims of the famine, disease and factional warfare in the city. At that rate, everyone in Jerusalem would have died in another five months!
Josephus tells us that the total of Jewish dead in the siege reached 1,100,000, and defends this figure by pointing out that the siege occurred when great multitudes of pilgrims were in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Josephus’ figure has been doubted since the Roman historian Tacitus gives a lower figure—600,000.
However, it should be remembered that Tacitus was not an eyewitness. His writings are full of inaccuracies regarding Jewish history and customs, and he admits that his casualty statistics were received secondhand.
Josephus further defends his figure of 1,100,000 by pointing out that not long before the Roman invasion of Judea a count had been taken of the number of animals sacrificed during the Passover and it was found that 256,500 had been killed. Since an average of 10 persons would eat the Passover meal from the same animal, Josephus concluded that as many as 2,500,000 persons could be found in Jerusalem for the Passover.
Credible, Not Infallible
Josephus’ credentials as an eyewitness historian are impressive. Of course, he was not an eyewitness to events inside the city of Jerusalem during its siege, but he was able to procure the freedom of some 200 Jewish survivors after the fall of the city and he could have interviewed them. During the siege there was also a steady stream of Jewish deserters, and Josephus was free to interview these as well. Additionally, he apparently had access to the diaries and commentaries of his patrons Vespasian and Titus, since he refers to these documents in his later writings.
This is not to say that Josephus’ history is infallible. His point of view is clearly affected by his desire to please his Roman benefactors, as well as by his dislike of the Zealots who took control of Jerusalem during the siege, some of whom had been his enemies when he was military governor of Galilee. But there is no reason to doubt the overall accuracy of Josephus’ work. After all, it was written during the lifetime of all those involved in the events being chronicled. Any serious inaccuracies would have been pounced upon by the author’s many jealous detractors.
Josephus’ writings make fascinating reading for students of history and students of the Bible alike. Perhaps you were not aware that secular history so strikingly confirms Bible prophecy. Although the Bible does not depend on Josephus, or any secular historian, for verification of what it says, nevertheless an appreciation of how the Bible has proved true in the past might well encourage objective persons to consider closely what it says for our day.
Had you previously thought of Josephus as a quiet scholar in a musty library? In short order he was a diplomat, general, prisoner of war, self-proclaimed prophet, Roman military adviser, and vivid chronicler of current events—truly a historian uniquely suited to his subject!
- August 8, 1980 Awake, WTB&TS