Josephus: A Groundbreaking Historian and a Proud Jew

December 9, 2021 | Steve Mason
About the author:

Born to a priestly family in Jerusalem in 37 CE, Yosef ben Mattityahu was, at the age of thirty, sent by Jewish leaders to defend the Galilee from imminent Roman attack. Although faced with a much larger force than expected, he brought his troops directly into battle when he could have easily avoided a fight and left the civilian population exposed to the legionaries’ depredations. After his force was defeated, he declined to join his fellows in a mass suicide, and instead surrendered to the Romans, ingratiated himself to their general, and lived out the rest of his life in the comfort of the capital, writing successful books, in Greek, on Jewish history with the patronage of the royal family—under the name Titus Flavius Josephus.

Elements of the story have led some to see him as having easily given up on the Jewish cause when the going got tough, instead choosing fame and enrichment. But Steve Mason provides a more sympathetic interpretation.

Those who incline to see Yosef as a “turncoat” might ask what they would have done in his sandals. Join the suicide? Go to the emperor Nero and likely death? He was the only man we know about in the war who moved from a safe place to harm’s way. The main traffic ran the opposite way: Judeans who did not feel safe when their leaders welcomed Vespasian fled to Jerusalem’s mighty walls, delaying their final reckoning. Josephus ran toward the shooting and was in serious peril for prolonged periods.

But more importantly, Josephus’ writings, in Mason’s view, make clear that his “deepest commitments” are to his fellow Jews, and that his exhaustive works on Jewish history—covering everything from creation through the recent war with Rome—had as their main purpose a defense of the Judeans and of Judaism for a Roman audience.

The single clearest theme in Josephus’ The Jewish War, reinforced in countless ways, concerns the innately tough, masculine character of the Judean people, in sharp contrast to the prevailing ridicule.

Josephus does not deny that the legions were superbly trained and formidable in column maneuvers. But man for man, the untrained and ill-equipped Judeans put them in the shade with their daring and contempt for death. Whenever they maneuver Romans into small combat, they send them running in fear. The city of Jerusalem matches its people, with its layers of massive walls and fortress-like temple. It would have been impregnable, had the God who watched over it not chosen the Romans to purge it of the pollution caused by compatriot bloodshed.

Indeed, Mason points out, Josephus almost always refers to himself by his Hebrew rather than Roman name. And in the medieval Hebrew reworking of Josephus’ history, his name is given as Yosef Ben-Gurion—the same name taken on by Israel’s first prime minister.

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