The Jewish War

views updated

The Jewish War

by Josephus (Flavius Josephus)


A history set in Palestine from 66–70 ce; published first in Aramaic and then in Greek translation in 75–79 ce.


Josephus, a former general in the Jewish revolt against Rome that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, recounts the war. Now a Roman court historian, he explains the reasons for the revolt and provides a detailed narrative of the fighting.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

Josephus’s life is known to history primarily from his own account. In his autobiography, called the Life (Vita), he tells us that he was born in Jerusalem in 36–37 ce, the first year of Gaius Caligula’s reign. On his mother’s side, he traces his ancestry back to the Maccabees and their descendents, the Hasmonean kings (175 bce-63 bce). Also the child of a notable father, he was born into a family of Jewish high priests, who officiated in the Temple in Jerusalem. He claims to have gained such educational mastery that when he was 14 years old, chief priests and other leaders in Jerusalem would consult with him. In 66 ce, Josephus became a leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Appointed a general, he went to the Galilee region, where he briefly led the effort against the Roman army before sur-rendering in 67 ce. Imprisoned by the Romans, he prophesied to the Roman general Vespasian that Vespasian would soon become emperor. When that indeed happened in 69, Josephus was released and traveled with the Roman army and its new commander, Titus (Vespasian’s son), back to Jerusalem, where he seems to have served as an advisor to the Romans as they besieged the city, attempting to quell the Jewish revolt. The Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple there in 70 ce, after which Josephus traveled back to Rome with his imperial patrons and received enough economic support to write his histories. He appears to have died around 100 ce, leaving behind a number of key literary works. The Jewish War was his first such work. Written in the 70s, the work was originally com-posed in Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew) for the Jews who lived in the east, under Persian rule. Shortly thereafter, he translated the account into Greek. His subsequent writings were most likely composed in Greek. In the 80s and 90s Josephus wrote the more ambitious Jewish Antiquities, which recounts the history of the “Jewish” people from Adam to 66 ce. Also in the 90s he com-posed his brief autobiography, the Life, and Against Apion (Contra Apionem), a two-book refutation of an anti-Jewish tract. Josephus claims to have written The Jewish War in response to the wide circulation of incorrect histories. He was particularly irked by the Roman historians who disparaged the Jews without taking into account the several years during which they had managed to hold the Roman forces at bay. Despite his claims to establish the historical record, Josephus’s motives, as we shall see, were far more complex than he admits.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The beginning of the Second Temple period

When does the story of the “Great Revolt” of the Jews against Rome properly begin? Josephus begins The Jewish War with the rise of the Hasmonean kingdom in the 160s bce. But some background is necessary to put into con-text the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty. The First Temple in Jerusalem, constructed (according to the biblical account) around 1000 bce by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587/6 bce. Following their standard practice, they deported the Israelite elite to Babylonia, in the east. Shortly thereafter, the Babylonians themselves fell to the Persians, who allowed the descendents of these Israelite exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. In fact, few Jews appear to have taken advantage of this opportunity. This small group of returnees, with Persian backing, established the foundations for the second temple by 515 bce. By 400 bce the Second Temple appears to have been relatively well-established.

Even by the time it was rebuilt, the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem had already been well entrenched in Jewish sacred writings. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and the historical books of Samuel and Kings that follow it, written while the First Temple still stood, established the temple’s centrality in Jewish thinking. It was at the Temple, and only at the Temple, that the regular sacrifices that maintained Israel’s relationship with God were to be offered. The Temple had more mundane functions too. It was also a governmental and economic institution that housed the high priests and prophets who were to take a role (with the king) in the administration of the land, and to which pilgrims were to regularly flock with tithes and other offerings. By laying the foundations of the Second Temple, the returnees saw themselves as reestablishing Israel’s relationship with its god, and perhaps also starting down the path to self-rule.

Whether or not they saw themselves as establishing a new independent polity, that is not what the Persians had in mind. The small Jewish community around Jerusalem was under the political rule of the Persian governor, or satrap. While the Persian authorities more or less allowed the Jews to manage their own religious institutions and affairs, the Persians kept firm control on the administrative, political, and judicial institutions of the satrapy. Over the next century, Jews in Judah or Yehud (the name of the Persian province) would increasingly adopt as their own the Aramaic language, a Semitic tongue similar to Hebrew that served as the lingua franca of the Persian Empire. They also would integrate Per-sian ideas into their literature. In Jewish history, the time from 515 bce-70 ce is known as the Second Temple period.


The Persian Empire collapsed suddenly when Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king whose military conquests from North Africa to the Asian steppes would result in the unprecedented spread of Greek culture, stormed through the Near East in 332 bce. Alexander died in 323, and his empire was divided among ten of his generals. Judah found itself on a slip of land between two of them, Seleucus (in the north, around the area of modern-day Syria) and Ptolemey (in modern-day Egypt). For the next century, the Seleucids and Ptolemies fought bitterly over this small strip of land. Ruled by the Ptolemies during this period, Judah, now re-named Judaea, shifted hands in 200 bce, when the Seleucid leader Antiochus solidified his control of the area.

The period of time from Alexander’s conquest of the Near East to the rise of Roman political power beginning in the first century bce is conventionally known as the Hellenistic period (which overlaps with the Second Temple period). The term comes from Hellenes, another name for Greeks. In part, Hellenistic refers to the self-styled Greek heritage of Alexander and his fellow conquerors, who were actually Macedonian conquerors of Greece (in 338 bce). More significantly, however, the term refers to the changing cultural world that Alexander brought to the Near East. Alexander and his successors might best be seen as “philo-Hellenes,” Macedonians who laid claim to the heritage of Greece by enthusiastic appropriation of things that they saw or styled as “Greek.” They used the Greek language in their official dealings and documents, and promoted Greek cultural productions. They often encouraged the establishment of a peculiarly Greek institution, the polis, a city-state that had its own constitution and administrative structures. At the center of the polis stood the gymnasium, an institution that gave upper-class boys the educational and military training that was necessary for citizenship in the polis. The polis was a central institution for the spread of a distinctly Hellenistic culture throughout the Near East. And spread it did.

Hellenism was rarely imposed—it spread widely because people throughout the Near East found it attractive. A conquered city of the Near East typically clamored for recognition of its community as a polis. Greek spread widely, often supplanting Aramaic as the primary language in the community. Not only did older Greek cultural products gain circulation (e.g., philosophy and drama), but new Hellenistic ones were created. A distinctly Hellenistic artistic style, dramatic forms, and philosophical schools sprang up in different regions. Judaea was no exception. The Jewish literary productions from this period demonstrate significant interest in and comfort with Hellenistic culture. The book of Ecclesiastes, a part of the Hebrew Bible written around 200 bce, is clearly familiar with Hellenistic norms and philosophical notions. So is the book of Ecclesiasticus, or Ben Sira, a work of around the same time consisting of wisdom maxims by a Jewish scribe and now part of Catholic sacred writings. Similarly, the Jewish apocalyptic works from this time, such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees, which purport to reveal (cryptically, of course) the secrets of heaven, demonstrate familiarity with Hellenistic apocalyptic ideas. Although the use of Greek was largely confined to the cities (it never fully spread to the more rural areas of Galilee, north of Judaea), Jews had no principled opposition to its use too.

Outside Judaea, there is further evidence of Jewish writing in Greek. Jewish communities throughout the Near East wrote histories, philosophies, poetry, and dramas in Greek, all in Hellenistic form. They read their Bible in its Greek translation—the Septuagint—produced in Egypt around 200 bce. Despite their unwillingness to participate in many of the religious events that pervaded the life of the polis (they thus were excluded from the gymnasium and full citizenship), Greek Jews, like their brethren in Judaea, saw little conflict between their participation in Hellenistic life and culture and their adherence to the “law of Moses.” Josephus writes of the many strong Jewish communities scattered throughout the Near East, and the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, appears to have had a particularly lively and cosmopolitan Jewish life. If the Jews by and large embraced Hellenistic culture, there was less ready acceptance in the other direction. The Greeks, and others, were more guarded in their reaction to the Jews. Most Hellenistic cities accepted and respected the Jews as a people with a venerable past. At the same time, they resented the fact that the Jews kept themselves apart. Jewish practices—the Jewish observance of the Sab-bath and of their own holidays rather than the city’s festal calendar, their circumcision, their avoidance of pork and meats that had been sacrificed to the protecting gods of the polis, and their tendency to marry only other Jews—all irritated many of the non-Jews. Meanwhile, the Egyptians, who were themselves looked down upon by their Hellenistic overlords, had a particular dislike for the Jews, perhaps due to what they saw as their favored treatment by the Greeks. All the cultural differences resulted in tensions that, if often repressed, could and did periodically erupt.

The Maccabees and rise of the Hasmonean kingdom

Around 165 bce, something happened. The precise nature of that “something” re-mains shrouded in mystery. Two later writers, the court historian of the Hasmoneans who authored 1 Maccabees (about 100 bce) and Nicholas of Cyrene, author of the longer, livelier 2 Maccabees, each gave their own version of events. It appears that a group of Jews wanted to transform Jerusalem into a polis. This somehow resulted in a civil war. As understood by the au-thor of 2 Maccabees, the war was really about Hellenism, which was locked in mortal combat with Judaism. Most scholars today, though, see a more complex situation, in which different factions of the Jewish elite were battling over more mundane issues of money and power for them-selves. In any event, the reigning Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took unkindly to this civil war and initiated a short-lived religious persecution of the Jews in Judaea—an unparalleled act in antiquity that continues to puzzle modern historians. According to the scriptural books 1 and 2 Maccabees, this persecution included desecration of the Temple, prohibitions on observing the Sabbath and holy days, and compelling the Jews to eat the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to idols.

Whether their rebellion was a reaction to or a cause of the religious persecutions, the Maccabee brothers led a revolt against Antiochus IV. Helped by a weakening of Seleucid power, the result of Antiochus’s misjudgments and of shifting allegiances in his realm, the Maccabees won. Eventually the Maccabee brothers installed themselves as Hellenistic kings (which suggests their revolt was not against “Hellenism”). Also they installed themselves as high priests in the Jewish faith, establishing both the Hasmonean dynasty and an independent Jewish state, or one at least as independent as any small vassal state could be.

The Hasmoneans managed both to expand their landholdings and to play the political “game” of promoting their own people’s interests successfully enough to stay in power. Eventually, though, they were defeated by their own dynastic struggles. In 63 bce one of two brothers con-tending for the kingship allied himself with the Roman general Pompey and invited him into Jerusalem for support. Pompey happily obliged. Roman intervention never came without attached strings, and the last years of Hasmonean rule were spent as puppets of Rome. Officially, the Hasmonean dynasty would end only in 37 bce. But Jewish independence in Judaea actually ended 26 years earlier, with Pompey’s arrival in Jerusalem in 63 bce.

Roman rule

When Roman legions entered Jerusalem, Rome was in the process of its trans-formation from a republic to an empire. Rome’s own internal struggles were decisively resolved at the battle of Actium in 31 bce, at which Octavian crushed the forces of his rival, Mark Antony. Now the unchallenged ruler of Rome, Octavian took the name Augustus and began to consolidate his power. To this end, he made one, in his eyes assuredly insignificant, decision at this time. He confirmed a supporter of his, a minor Jewish (some say half-Jewish) noble, as a subordinate king of Judaea. The supporter’s name was Herod.

Herod the Great had overthrown the last of the Hasmonean kings by force in 37 bce. Beginning with Herod’s reign, the records become largely dependent upon Josephus himself for the historical account. Josephus appears to have used earlier no-longer-available sources, particularly the work of Nicolas of Damascus, whose history of Herod was probably largely financed by Herod himself and naturally biased in his favor. As portrayed in these earlier sources (unlike those of the more hostile and less historically reliable Gospels of the Christian Bible, written long after Herod’s death and confusing the rule of Herod the Great with one of his sons), Herod was an active and relatively good ruler of Judaea. After eliminating his foes, he launched a campaign against the “bandits” (which surely included rebels) in the countryside. In 20/19 bce he initiated the renovation of the Temple, a massive building project that gave work to thousands and would not yet be finished 90 years later, when the Temple was destroyed. Herod established several cities during his reign. Although not ob-servant of the religious “law of Moses” himself, he tried to give no offense to the Jewish population of his kingdom. His paranoia and ferociousness toward his own family were legendary even in antiquity, but this hardly affected most Jews of Judaea.

After Herod died in 4 bce, things very quickly began going downhill. Herod’s kingdom was divided among his children. Herod Antipas man-aged to hold on to his share, in Galilee, from 4 bce to 39 ce. The other brothers did not do as well. Archelaus ruled Judaea only from 4 bce to 6 ce, when Rome assumed direct control. After appointing a series of governors, Rome reappointed a king in Judaea, Agrippa I (ruled 41–44 ce). In 44 ce, Rome finally turned Judaea into a province, and ruled it directly by appointing a procurator as the head official. In Josephus’s account, the procurators—there was a rapid turnover of them—could not have been worse. From 60 ce on, Roman rule appears to have been almost incompetent. Of the procurator Albinus (62–64 ce), Josephus writes that “there was no form of villainy which he omitted to practice” (Josephus, The Jewish War, book 2, paragraph 272). But compared to the next procurator, Florus, Albinus appeared “by comparison a paragon of virtue” (War, 2.277). Josephus accuses Florus of legalizing brigandage (as long


587/6 bceDestruction of First Temple in Jerusalem
515 bceEstablishment of Second Temple in Jerusalem; formation of Persian province of Yehud/Judah
332 bceAlexander conquers the Near East (dies 323 bce)
323–200 bceStruggle between Ptolemies and Seleucids over Palestine, the region that contained Judaea (which had been renamed from judah)
200 bceAntbchus III (Seleucld) gains control of Judaea
165–162 bceMaccabean revolt; beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty
63 bcePompey enters Jerusalem
37 bceEnd of Hasmonean dynasty; beginning of Herod the Great’s reign
31 bceOctavian defeats Marc Antony; takes title of Augustus
4 bceDeath of Herod the Great arid the division of Palestine among his sons
 4 bce-33/4 ce: Philip
 4 bce 39 ce: Herod Antipas
 4 bce-6 ce: Archelaus
6–41 bceRoman prefects assume control of Judaea
36–37josephus born
37–41Reign of Gaius Caligula
41–44Reign of Agrippa I in Palestine
44–66Roman procurators over Palestine
50–92/3 (?)Reign of Agrippa II in Palestine
54–68Reign of Nero
66Outbreak of Jewish Revolt; Josephus in Galilee
67Josephus captured by Romans
68Beginning of siege of Jerusalem
69Vespasian returns to Rome; his son Titus takes charge of the siege
70Destruction of the Second Temple
69–79Reign of Vespasian
74Fall of Masada
79–81Reign of Titus
81–96Reign of Domitian

as he received his share) and setting the conditions that led to an uprising against the Jews of Caesarea. In 66 ce, the Jews revolted.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents summary

The Jewish War relates in seven “books” (in today’s language, sections) the history of the Jewish revolt against Rome. The first two books cover the period from the Maccabees to the early stages of the revolt. Josephus’s description of the revolt itself begins toward the end of book 2. The remaining five books focus on the events of the war from 66 ce to 73 ce; Josephus is practically our only source for these events and certainly our most important. Despite a few short digressions, his narrative is remarkably focused and detailed as it traces the course of the war.

For Josephus, as he makes clear in book 2, Roman insensitivity and incompetence were the immediate causes of the Jewish revolt. One of the first acts of the rebels upon their seizure of Jerusalem was burning the archives where the records of debts were stored, suggesting economic motives underlying the revolt; the looting of the land by the procurators (and probably their Jewish supporters) had led to tremendous economic hardships and disparities. But the procurators were not only thieves. They also seemed to almost deliberately provoke the Jews. They tried to erect a statue of the Roman emperor in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple, and later looked the other way when Gentiles rioted against Jews in Caesarea, which was the capital of Palestine at the time. As the war got underway, Romans began allowing or participating in the slaughter of Jews in major population centers throughout the Near East. This only further inflamed the rebels.

If Roman incompetencies lit the tinderbox, though, they did not create it. Josephus suggests that since the time of Herod’s death more than 60 years earlier, several competing Jewish nationalist factions had arisen. These factions, loosely tied to religious ideologies, promoted Jewish independence from Rome. In 4 bce, as Herod lay dying, two “experts in the ancestral laws” encouraged the populace to remove the golden eagle from the Temple, claiming that Jewish law prohibited all images in the Temple (the golden eagle was the standard symbol of ancient Rome). The removal was seen as a seditious act of rebellion against Rome, and the culprits were harshly punished. Another group, adherents of the so-called “Fourth Philosophy,” preached that the Jews should have no king but God. Such stir-rings were connected to prophetic movements that suggested the end of time was near—Jesus, although only very briefly mentioned by Josephus (see below), might be seen in this eschato-logical or end-of-the-world context.

Josephus condemns the rebel leaders, whom he portrays as bandits with no redeeming motivations. At several points he suggests that things could have ended differently had only cooler voices prevailed over the murderous din of the Jewish zealots. When the war was about to begin, King Agrippa II (50 ce-C. 92/93 ce) gave a lengthy speech to the Jews, advising them not to rebel against Rome. The extreme Jewish rebels responded by throwing stones at him and driving him away.

Josephus, sent to Galilee by leaders of the revolt to spearhead the rebellion there, first tried to resolve it peacefully. His efforts at a peaceful resolution were soon sabotaged by a certain John of Gischala. Driven to war, Josephus tells us how cleverly and valiantly he defended the Galilean cities in his charge. Rome had nevertheless pacified Galilee by October of 67, taking Josephus captive in the process.

John of Gischala, however, managed to escape to Jerusalem, where he assumed leadership of the faction most supportive of the war. The zealots soon entered the city and, with the help of neigh-boring troops (the Idumaeans) they had invited into Jerusalem, killed the leading opponents of the war, including the Jewish high priest. With Jerusalem wracked by sectarian conflict (an explanation, incidentally, often used by Greek historians to account for the downfall of a polis), the Roman commander Vespasian marched on Judaea in 68. Before reaching Jerusalem, however, he was distracted by affairs in Rome. Book 4 ends with Vespasian leaving for Rome, where he will soon become emperor. He sends Titus to finish the war.

Without the Romans breathing down the rebels’ neck, the sectarian conflict in Jerusalem only got worse. The fighting became so bad that stray projectiles between the warring parties would fall inside the Temple precincts, killing innocent worshippers. This strife, in turn, led to a famine. It was into this situation that Titus, with his three legions, marched.

The approach of the Roman army united the three major Jewish rebel factions. Despite their continued infighting, they managed to mount a stiff defense against Rome. After describing a string of Jewish successes against the Roman army in book 5, Josephus offers a detailed report of Jerusalem and its fortifications. By May 25, 70, the tide had begun to turn. The Roman army started slowly to capture and destroy Jerusalem’s fortifications. At this point, Josephus exhorted the Jews of Jerusalem to surrender, using arguments very much like Agrippa’s arguments of four years earlier. Although some Jews tried to desert the city in response to this exhortation, the rebels attempted to seal Jerusalem, causing even greater hardship within its confines. Of the lower classes alone, 600,000 people perished as a result of the hardship that the siege brought upon Jerusalem, which was exacerbated by the rebels.

Book 6 opens with the final chapter of the battle for Jerusalem. The Romans regrouped, constructed earthworks, and attacked in July of 70, soon trapping the rebels in the Temple. Although Titus wanted to leave the Temple intact, unplanned things often happen in the fog of war. The Temple was looted and burned on August 30, 70.

The destruction of the Temple had been pre-ordained. Josephus says that anyone who had paid attention to the portents over the previous years would have known that God had already decided to destroy His house. In 62, for example, “at the feast which is called Pentecost [Shavuot], the priests on entering the inner court of the temple by night, as their custom was in the discharge of their ministrations, reported that they were conscious, first of a commotion and a din, and after that of a voice as of a host—‘We are departing hence’” (War, 6.299–300). God was planning to punish His people for their sins. By the end of September, 30, 70, the entire city lay in ruins. Josephus reports 97,000 prisoners and 1.1 million casualties of the war.

Book 7 describes the mop-up operations and ties up other loose ends as well. The rebel leaders were captured by the Romans and, along with the spoils of war, were taken to Rome for a triumph or celebratory procession for Vespasian and Titus. But the war was not quite over. Roman generals continued the campaign against pockets of rebel resistance holed up in old Herodian forts, mainly in the Judaean desert. The last of these fortresses to remain standing was Masada, occupied by the Sicarii, a fierce rebel group named for their penchant of carrying concealed knives and stealthily stabbing their opponents.

The location of Masada was excellent. Its fortifications were strong; its stores, fully stocked. Thus, it took some time for the Romans to breech the walls. The surviving rebels, facing certain death at the hands of the Romans, made a suicide pact, slaughtering each other and themselves. Only two women and five children, hiding in the aqueduct, survived (to tell the tale to Josephus). Even the Romans were impressed: “Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death displayed by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution” (War, 7.406).

The war ended thus in 73. There were repercussions of the revolt throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish Temple of Onias, located in Egypt, was razed, and there were continuing disturbances in Cyrene (modern-day Libya). Josephus concludes with a brief epilogue in which he asserts the truthfulness of his narrative.

Josephus’s mixed motives

In The Jewish War, Josephus tries to walk a fine line. On the one hand, he attempts to portray the Jews as a brave and courageous people who never had a chance against Rome. He thus attributes to them the virtues of courage and valor, which would bring them respect in Roman eyes. Even with their siege preparations around Jerusalem complete, for example, the Romans were dejected by “the discovery that the Jews possessed a fortitude of soul that could surmount faction, famine, war and such a host of calamities. They fancied the impetuosity of these men to be irresistible and their cheerfulness to be invincible” (War, 6.13–14). On the other hand, he also attempts to por-tray the Jews as fundamentally peace-loving and law-abiding citizens of the Roman Empire, and Josephus does not let an opportunity pass to emphasize that the majority of Jews did not support the revolt. After Josephus’s own appeal to the Jews of Jerusalem to surrender, for example, he tells us that many would have deserted the city had not the rebels “kept a sharper look-out for the egress of these refugees than for the ingress of Romans” (War, 5.423). By blaming the Jewish revolt on the incompetence of some prior Roman rulers (not, of course, Vespasian and Titus) and on a small group of selfish Jewish fanatics, he tries to free the Judaean Jews of blame for the revolt. At the same time he makes these pro-Jewish arguments to Roman and Greek readers, he tells Jewish readers that Vespasian and Titus had no choice but to destroy the Temple. De-spite their best attempts to avoid this calamity, the stubborn resistance of the Jewish fanatics and the fog of war forced the Roman leaders into it. In view of these circumstances, the Jews should not be angry with Vespasian, Titus, and the subsequent emperors. The diplomacy in all these explanations is self-evident. Just as Josephus presented himself as earlier trying to effect a peaceful resolution to the war before the outbreak of hostilities, he here again portrays himself working to promote cooperation between the Roman rulers and their Jewish subjects. Clearly he has deeper motives for this presentation than he reveals.

Even the better historical writings on the Jewish War, Josephus claims, “either from flattery of the Romans, or from hatred of the Jews, mis-represented the facts, their writings exhibiting alternatively invective and encomium, but nowhere historical accuracy” (War, 1.2). One might suppose that he therefore wrote his own account to set the record straight. Modern historians, however, have long debated Josephus’s true motives for writing The Jewish War. Clearly “setting the record straight” was not his only or even his primary concern. All ancient histories were written, ultimately, for practical reasons; they were meant to tell stories that would be useful to their readers. So what was Josephus trying to achieve? Did he want to clear himself of wrongdoing in the eyes of fellow Jews? Did he want to encourage peaceful coexistence under Roman rule?

Josephus’s complex agenda muddies our ability to sort fact from fiction in his narratives. At times, he seems driven by personal motives. For example, he describes his surrender to the Ro-mans at Jotapata in some detail. According to his account, he and the other rebel leaders hid in a cave and entered into a suicide pact, in which they would kill each other instead of falling into Roman hands. When only Josephus and one other leader were left, he says, “anxious neither to be condemned by the lot [killed first] nor, should he be left to the last, to stain his hand with the blood of a fellow countryman, he persuaded this man also, under a pledge, to remain alive” (War, 3.391). This explanation of his behavior, which was denounced by some other ancient Jewish historians, makes it difficult to evaluate his recounting of a similar incident at the end of The Jewish War: the siege of Masada and the suicide of its rebels, which had such strong parallels to his own experience at Jotapata. Was he patterning the story of Masada on his own experience? The historical problem is further complicated by the archaeological remains found at Masada, which do not fully support Josephus’s account.

Sources and literary context

Josephus used a wide variety of sources for his narrative. Like most ancient historians, he rarely acknowledged them. A Greek version of 1 Maccabees, along with another unknown source, appears to stand behind his description of the Hasmonean period. The history of Nicolas of Damascus clearly in-formed his account of Herod’s era. Scholars agree that Josephus relied on official Roman records to document his narrative of the war, but there is debate over how much he used them. Throughout his other works Josephus cites many Greek historians, and although they go unmentioned in The Jewish War, he might well have drawn on them for this work too.

Josephus wrote as a Greek historian. We possess fragments of several earlier Jewish histories written in Greek, but none comes as close as Josephus to resembling contemporary Greek historical writings. Indeed, it might be said that Josephus did for Jewish historiography in Greek what Philo did for Jewish philosophical writings; both seem fully at home in their chosen genre.

This, however, does not translate into the conclusion that Josephus sparked Jewish historiography. Quite the contrary—like Philo, he was widely ignored by the Jews themselves. The enormous corpus of rabbinic literature produced between 70 and 640 ce pays absolutely no attention to him or to his style of historiography, and no Jewish community preserved his corpus long enough to leave even fragments in their collection of works. Early Christians preserved his writing for reasons, as we shall see below, little related to their historical value or usefulness.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

Postwar politics

Josephus wrote The Jewish War while under imperial patronage in Rome in the late 70s. The ample, almost fulsome praise the work heaps on Vespasian and especially Titus is certainly linked to the lavish benefits that these two Roman leaders heaped on Josephus. Titus gave him a grant of land to replace the one that he lost in Jerusalem, and when he arrived in Rome, Vespasian gave Josephus lodging, Roman citizenship, a pension, and another tract of land in Judaea. When Titus died, Josephus remained loyal to his successor, another Flavian emperor named Domitian (ruled 81–96).

Josephus’s true motives in writing his history remain tantalizingly obscure. Clearly Josephus is more than a Flavian flatterer; the destruction of Jerusalem still seems to weigh on him, and he shows not a little pride at being a Jew. Such al-most militant pride appears surprising. The Ro-mans followed their military victory over the Jews with a campaign of humiliation. In the triumph, last of all the spoils was a copy of “the law of the Jews,” meaning a Torah scroll, on display perhaps to mock the Jewish God as well as the people. The defeat of the Jews and their humiliation were commemorated publicly with an engraving on the Arch of Titus and on Roman coins. Shortly following the revolt, a special tax was imposed on Jews throughout the Roman Empire. It is possible, as some scholars have recently argued, that Jewish life in Judaea and Galilee simply collapsed as Jews increasingly lost confidence in their own tradition. Despite these humiliations, Josephus stands tall as a protector of the reputation of the Jews.

Some scholars have argued that behind Josephus’s narratives is a subtle political argument. He is almost our only, and certainly our best, source on the religious sects of Judaism in the Second Temple period. The Jewish War contains a detailed description of the sect known as the Essenes, with decreasing attention to the Pharisees and least of all to the Sadducees. Josephus may have admired the Essenes, but in an abstract way. His true sympathies appear to have lain with the Pharisees. He claims that they were the most accurate interpreters of Scripture, were politically wellrespected, and on the whole were opposed to the war. There is some scholarly debate about whether his sympathy for the Pharisees increased in his later writings, but some indication of his allegiance can already be found in The Jewish War .

It has been argued that Josephus’s support for the Pharisees really is veiled support for the authority of the successors of the Pharisees, the Rabbis. Josephus never mentions the Rabbis. In their own literature, though, the Rabbis identify the destruction of the Temple and the establishment of a rabbinic academy by Yohanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh (a city near modern-day Tel Aviv) as a crucially important event in the development of the rabbinic movement. With the Temple in ruins, the nobility shattered, and the priesthood adrift, who would serve as the political and religious leaders of the people? In the post-destruction years, the Rabbis, or groups relating to them, appear to have been making claims on these roles.

We know almost nothing about Judaean politics after the war. Were the Rabbis really competing at this time for authority, and if so, who were their competitors? In the aftermath of the war, the sectarian groups mentioned by Josephus vanish. Might they have folded into a rabbinic coalition?

Postscript—continued unrest

Jewish life in Judaea remained unsettled. Whatever happened, it did not succeed in healing the wounds of the war. In 132 revolt broke out again, this time from the Judaean desert. Shimon bar Kosiba would be-come known to his supporters as Bar Kochva, “son of the star,” apparently due to a belief that he was the messiah. He was also an excellent military leader. Marshaling widespread Jewish support throughout Judaea, across the Jordan into Arabia, and perhaps even in Galilee, bar Kosiba mounted a serious challenge to Rome. He prob-ably never managed to retake Jerusalem, but he kept a significant number of Roman forces tied down in Judaea for three years as they attempted to flush the insurgents out of their elaborate cave bunkers in the Judaean desert. The Bar Kochva letters, a number of administrative documents signed by bar Kosiba during the uprising, were recovered from these caves.

This time the Roman response was brutal. Roman forces decimated Judaea, drove the Jews into Galilee, and initiated (short-lived) religious persecutions. Jerusalem was plowed under and rededicated to Jupiter as the city of Aelia Capitolina. Over 200 years later the Jews would get one more aborted chance to restore the Temple, during the short rule of the emperor Julian. For all in-tents and purposes, though, the practical hope for the restoration of the Temple died with bar Kosiba.

Very slowly, there began the development of a new form of Jewish worship centered not on the Temple but on the study of the Torah and adherence to its commandments. Rabbinic Judaism began its development and rise at this time, offering alternatives to the sacrificial worship of God that had previously been confined to the Temple, although it would be many centuries before the Jews would accept the vision of the Rabbis.

Publication and impact

The survival of Josephus’s writings is a historical accident. Some Jews clearly read Josephus, as demonstrated by Josephus’s defensive reaction to the attacks of other Jewish historians. But no Jewish community took him seriously enough to copy and preserve him. Nor did the Romans find his work compelling enough to adopt it into some kind of canon that would survive to posterity.

It was, rather, the Christians who preserved Josephus, and they did so on account of a forged half-sentence in his work. Josephus mentions Jesus and John the Baptist very briefly, in Antiquities. Attached to his description of Jesus, though, is the statement, “he was the Christ [Messiah],” which almost all modern scholars think is a later emendation, probably added by a Christian scribe. Whether Josephus really wrote this or not, early Christian communities saw in this line a witness to Christ, and the passage has become known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Josephus’s account of the war, especially his descriptions of God’s abandonment of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple, also fit well with early Christian theological assertions that God had abandoned the Jews and now favored the Christians. Early Christian communities thus preserved all of Josephus’s writings, which, in turn, might have reinforced the Jewish avoidance of him.

Josephus represents a path not taken by the Jews of late antiquity. Jews would not begin to write “historically,” modeling their work after that of the Greek historians (Herodotus and Thucydides) until the Middle Ages. The Rabbis are completely uninterested in history as such, and their historical narratives are short, incidental, and almost always serve a moral purpose. From early on, though, Christians such as Eusebius adapted modes of Greek historiography, constructing accounts of their own story historically. Whether and in what way Jews prior to the Middle Ages might have “thought historically” is an interesting and still unresolved question, but they clearly rejected the type of writing demonstrated by Josephus.

Jews oddly rehabilitated the image of Josephus in the Middle Ages. Josippon was an anonymous Hebrew tract from the tenth century that told a history of the Second Temple period. It was largely based on a Latin translation of Josephus’s works and mentions Josephus as “Josephus ben Gorion.” This book achieved relatively wide circulation; it was known by the Jewish scholar Rashi in the eleventh century, and an edited version was published in 1510. To the extent that Josephus was known to the Jews, it was through Josippon, which at times was thought to have been written by Josephus himself.

At the end of The Jewish War Josephus writes: “Here we close the history, which we promised to relate with perfect accuracy for the information of those who wish to learn how this war was waged by the Romans against the Jews. Of its style my readers must be left to judge; but, as concerning truth, I would not hesitate boldly to assert that, throughout the entire narrative, this has been my single aim” (War, 7.454–455). That Josephus no doubt had other aims too has already been established, but the work remains invaluable nonetheless. Along with the ways the early Christians and medieval Jews made use of his writings, they have contributed immeasurably to modern scholarship. For all of his complex motives, his defensiveness, and his biases, Josephus is our only even semi-reliable source for the Jewish War. His occasional digressions on Jewish religious life in Roman Palestine, his comments on Jewish communities outside Judaea, and his observations about Roman history are all irreplaceably enlightening. Without them, our knowledger of the last centuries of the Second Temple period would be infinitely impoverished.

—Michael L. Satlow

For More Information

Attridge, H. W. “Josephus and His Works.” In Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period. Ed. Michael E. Stone. Philadelphia: Van Gorcum and Fortress, 1984.

Baumgarten, Albert I. The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the Maccabean Era: An Interpretation. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Bilde, Per. Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: His Life, His Works and Their Importance. Sheffield, England: jsot Press, 1988.

Cohen, Shaye J. D. Josephus in Galilee and Rome: His Vita and Development as a Historian. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1979.

Feldman, Louis H. Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Josephus. The Jewish War. Vols. 1–3. Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Martin, Goodman. The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66–70. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Rajak, Tessa. Josephus: The Historian and His Society. London: Duckworth, 2002.

Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. Edinburgh: Clark, 1973–1987.

Schwartz, Seth. Josephus andjudean Politics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1990.

About this article

The Jewish War

Updated About content Print Article