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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edwin Knox Mitchell (1853–1934)

By Josephus (37–100)

JOSEPHUS the Jewish historian was born at Jerusalem of Jewish parentage in 37 A.D. He belonged to a distinguished priestly family, and was himself early put in training for the priesthood. At the age of fourteen his knowledge of the law was so minute and profound as to attract the attention of the high priests and chief rabbis of the city. But dissatisfied with such attainments, he began at the age of sixteen a pilgrimage of the various schools of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Failing to quench his thirst for knowledge, he withdrew into the wilderness and sought the guidance of the hermit Banus, with whom he lived for three years. Returning thereupon to Jerusalem, he openly espoused the cause of the Pharisees and rose rapidly in their favor. In 63 A.D., being then twenty-six years of age, he went to Rome to secure the release of certain priests, who were near relatives of his and who had been imprisoned upon some trifling charges. The Jewish actor Alityrus introduced him to the Empress Poppæa, who obtained the release of the prisoners and loaded Josephus with rich presents for the journey home.

Soon after his return, in 66 A.D., the Jewish revolt against the Roman rule began; and after the first decisive battle, Josephus joined the revolutionary party and became one of its leaders. He was intrusted with the chief command in Galilee, where the conflict had originated, and he set himself at once to fortify certain towns and to organize and discipline his army. He has left us in his ‘Wars of the Jews’ a minute account of his leadership, down to the time of his capture a year later upon the fall of the fortress of Jotapata. When carried before Vespasian he prophesied, two years in advance of the event, that general’s elevation to the throne. Vespasian now kept him near at hand; and when the Palestinian legions fulfilled Josephus’s prophecy, the new Emperor granted his distinguished prisoner freedom. According to custom, Josephus now assumed the name Flavius, and proved his gratitude by remaining with the Roman army when Titus was intrusted with the command in Palestine. During the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus often endangered his life, at the command of Titus, in trying to persuade the Jews to surrender the city. And when the end came he was permitted to take whatever he wanted, and by his intercession many prisoners who were his personal friends obtained their freedom. He now went with Titus to Rome, and Vespasian assigned him a palatial residence, bestowing upon him the rights of Roman citizenship and granting him a yearly stipend. He was also presented with a large estate in Judæa; but he preferred to reside at Rome, where he continued to pursue his studies and to prosecute his literary work amid the unbroken favor of the successive Emperors. He died in the early days of Trajan’s reign.

WORKS.—The literary labors of Josephus, which covered more than a quarter of a century, resulted in the production of the following works:—

(1) The ‘Wars of the Jews.’ This consists of seven books, and was originally written in Aramaic, but was soon rewritten in Greek, and obtained the hearty indorsement of both Vespasian and Titus. The first two books sketch quite fully the history of the Jews from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, 175–164 B.C., down to the first year of the war, 66 A.D. The remainder of the work is taken up with a detailed account of the war down to the destruction of Jerusalem and the complete demolition of the Jewish State in 70 A.D. The later books are the account of an eye-witness and a participant in the events narrated, and are by far the best record we have of those eventful years.

(2) ‘The Antiquities of the Jews.’ Upon the completion of the former work, near the close of Vespasian’s reign, Josephus seems to have given himself to the stupendous task of narrating the history of the Jewish people from the earliest times down to the outbreak of the war with the Romans. This occupied him for some twenty years, and resulted in the composition of the ‘Antiquities of the Jews,’ in twenty books. The first ten books reach down to the Babylonian captivity, and the narrative runs parallel with the Biblical account; the eleventh book carries the history down to Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.; the twelfth to the death of Judas Maccabæus, in 161 B.C.; the thirteenth to the death of Alexandra, in 69 B.C.; the fourteenth to the commencement of Herod the Great’s reign, in 37 B.C.; the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth are devoted to the reign of Herod, 37–4 B.C.; the remaining three books bring us down to the outbreak of the Jewish war in 66 A.D. The chief aim of the author was so to present the history of the much-despised Jewish people as to win for them the respect of the cultured Greeks and Romans of his own day. To this end he does not hesitate to modify or omit the more offensive portions of the Old Testament narrative, or to strengthen the Biblical account by quotations from non-canonical writers. He uses his extra-Biblical sources still more freely: quoting, epitomizing, elaborating, and often controverting their statements. For the period from 440 to 175 B.C. he is almost wholly dependent upon the Alexander legends and the pseudo-Aristeas; for 175 to 135 B.C. the First Book of Maccabees is the principal source, which is supplemented by Polybius and others; for 135 to 37 B.C. the chief authorities are Strabo and Nicolas of Damascus, whose accounts are supplemented by oral tradition. For the history of Herod, 37–4 B.C., Nicolas of Damascus is the principal authority, with a possible use of the Commentaries of King Herod. This last period is described with great fullness and particularity; but the narrative thereafter is scanty till we reach the reign of Agrippa I., which is elaborated with oral traditions. For the remainder of the ‘Antiquities’ Josephus relied upon his personal recollections and living witnesses.

(3) ‘Autobiography.’ Instead of being a “life,” this brief work is really a defense of the author’s conduct of the Galilean campaign in 66–67 A.D. There are short biographical notices, which form an introduction and a conclusion to the personal apologia. Justus of Tiberias had written an account of the Jewish war which represented Josephus as the author of the revolt in Galilee, and thus compromised his standing with the Romans. The so-called ‘Autobiography’ is a vituperative attack upon Justus and a pitifully weak reply to his charges.

(4) The ‘Treatise Against Apion.’ This is the last of the extant works of Josephus, and it followed closely upon the publication of the preceding. The title as given is defective, and is certainly not the original one. The grammarian Apion is not the chief object of attack, but rather the violent and ofttimes absurd prejudices against the Jewish people and their religion. The historian makes an able and skillful defense, in which he seeks to prove the great antiquity of the Jews and their superiority over other nations, especially the Egyptians and Greeks. He maintains that the latter derived their best laws and highest wisdom from Moses and other inspired writers; and he then charges the Greeks with all manner of injustice, immorality, stupidity, and sacrilege. The Jewish religion is ably defended and expounded, and the personal beliefs of Josephus can be fairly well determined.

CHARACTER.—Josephus was a man of strong individuality; but he was vain, opinionated, self-seeking, and duplicitous. It is unfair to charge him with the betrayal of his nation, for he only prudently submitted to the inevitable. But it cannot be denied that he accomplished the transference of his personal allegiance to the Romans with unbecoming equanimity, and with an eye single to his own immediate safety and future prospects. Contrast this conduct with that of an older contemporary, St. Paul, who was willing to be accursed if he might thereby save his people. It is interesting to recall that Josephus was born about the time of St. Paul’s conversion; both were trained in Jerusalem as Pharisees; both went to Rome about the same year, where they may have learned to know each other: but later, while the former was dexterously compromising with the Romans, the latter was refusing to betray his cause and consequently suffered the death penalty. The faults of Josephus as a historian are, as might have been expected, the faults inherent in his character as a man. He was learned, but he was at the same time opinionated; he was a keen observer, but he was vainglorious and ever seeking to justify himself or his cause; he had a clear perception of the forces which mold events, but he was lacking in integrity and candor. His writings are accordingly full of perverted accounts, ludicrous exaggerations, and dexterous apologies. But it is not so difficult to detect these defects; for they are often glaring, and they almost always bear the marks of personal prejudice or racial bias. The ‘Antiquities’ were written to glorify the history and character of the Jewish people; the ‘Wars’ and ‘Autobiography’ to glorify and shield their author; and the ‘Treatise against Apion’ to glorify and defend the Jewish religion. But notwithstanding these radical defects, there is perhaps no other ancient historian whose works have come down to us, who has covered so wide a range of human events and has left us more valuable historical details. For the period intervening between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and for a knowledge of the New Testament times, the works of Josephus are indispensable.