Question: "Who was Flavius Josephus?"
Answer: Since their release in the first century AD, the writings of Flavius Josephus have become a primary source of Judeo-Christian history. According to The Life of Flavius Josephus, Josephus “was born to Matthias in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar” (1:5), being AD 37. At “fourteen years of age, [he] was commended by all for the love [he] had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to [him] together, in order to know [his] opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law” (2:9).
Observing the Jewish sects of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, Josephus spent three years with a hermit named Banus (2:11–12) and, upon returning at nineteen years age, “began to conduct [him]self according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees” (2:12). Traveling to Rome to defend persecuted Pharisees, he returned with an admiration for the Roman way of life. Soon after, a rebellion by Jewish forces against Rome occurred (AD 66), and Josephus found himself becoming a commander in Galilee where he “took care to have arms provided, and the cities fortified” (14:77). However, despite his attempts, Josephus surrendered at Jotapata, which “was taken by force” (65:350). When the “siege of Jotapata was over, and [he] was among the Romans, [he] was kept with much care, by means of the great respect that Vespasian showed [him]” (AD 69) and was soon accompanied by the emperor’s son Titus back to Jerusalem (75:414–416).
Despite Josephus’s attempts to quell growing revolts, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Josephus returned with Titus to Rome, where he “had great care taken of [him] by Vespasian; for he gave [him] an apartment in his own house, which he lived in before he came to the empire. He also honored [Josephus] with the privilege of a Roman citizen, and gave [him] an annual pension; and continued to respect [him] to the end of his life” (76:423).
The works of Josephus are few in number, but large in volume. The Wars of the Jews is the harrowing and partly eye-witness account of the wars involving the Jewish nation from the Maccabean Revolt (as told in the apocryphal 1 Maccabees) to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, through which Josephus lived. The Antiquities of the Jews details the history of the Jewish people from the creation narrative (Genesis in the Old Testament) to the time of Josephus’s writing (New Testament and thereafter). Against Apion is an insightful apologetic of Jewish theology and thought against critics and students of Greek philosophy. Josephus is best known however, among Christians for his referral to Jesus in The Antiquities of the Jews, one of the earliest pieces of historical evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament. Below is the paragraph from The Antiquities of the Jews (18:63–64), with what is commonly believed to be additions by a later Christian translator in brackets:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to refer to him as a man]. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah-Christ.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For on the third day he appeared to them again alive, just as the divine prophets had spoken about these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”
Later in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:200), Jesus is again mentioned, in passing this time, as Josephus focuses his discussion on Jesus' half-brother James (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19). The passage is again worth quoting in full:
“But this younger Ananus, who, as we told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent. . . . He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Messiah-Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned.”
Despite the occasional bias of his historical works, Josephus is a relatively credible historian whose work provides a thorough understanding of Jewish life in the first century and the Jewish War. Without such histories, our knowledge and understanding of these two areas would be far less rich.