Flavius Josephus: Hellenized Moderate or Traitor to the Jews?

Roman soldiers raid Jerusalem
Pictured is a panel of the marble Arch of Titus (81 C.E.). In the panel, Roman soldiers are depicted raiding Jerusalem during the rule of Vespasian | Courtesy Yeshiva University Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project.

Who was Flavius Josephus? Some would say a moderate, others might say he was a traitor to the Jewish people. Upon examination, the lines between the two become blurred. Josephus was born Josephus ben Matthias in the year 37 CE to a lineage that he claimed was of priestly Judaic origin. So why do so many now refer to him as Flavius Josephus? Why did he bear the first name of a Roman emperor? It appears that Josephus’ identity was much more complex than being simply a Roman or a Jew.

In Josephus’ autobiography, he did not hesitate to sing the praises of his own accomplishments and nobility. He said of himself in his introductory paragraphs that “he was commended by all for his passion for learning,” and that even the high priests themselves would come to ask for his teaching on Judaic law at the mere age of fourteen. 1 According to Josephus, his desire to learn did not end there. At the age of sixteen, Josephus began to study the three major sects of Judaism (the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes) in order to become contented with one of the three sect’s philosophies and customs. However, Josephus found himself contented with none of them, but rather was drawn into the Judean desert by a man named Banus.

Bust of Flavius Josephus
Bust of Flavius Josephus | from https://www.flickr.com/photos/julio-claudians/6225241190/

Banus was an ascetic Jewish philosopher who wandered the desert wearing clothing fashioned from the leaves of plants. He ate nothing but that which he acquired by foraging, bathed with cold water, and preserved his chastity. For reasons not offered by Josephus, he became attracted to Banus’s way of life, and so followed Banus in his ways for three years.2

Upon his return to Jerusalem from the desert, what Josephus began to do exactly has been disputed, at least in the particulars. Some have interpreted his autobiography, The Life of Flavius Josephus, as saying he became a Pharisee, while other scholars, such as Steve Mason, interpret the language simply as meaning that he lived among the Pharisees and worked for them.3 Despite disagreement, it is clear that Josephus was at least allied closely with many of the Pharisees.

Indeed, at age twenty-six, Josephus sailed by ship to Rome to request the release of some priestly acquaintances. According to Josephus, his friends were put into captivity for insignificant causes. On his voyage by sea, however, Josephus reported his first scrape against the threat of death; the ship he was on, holding some six-hundred men, sunk at sea. Josephus survived and was saved, along with around eighty other men, by a friendly ship. They were taken to the Italian city of Puteoli, where he met with his acquaintance, and friend of Emperor Nero, Aliturius. Fortunately, since Aliturius was a friend of Nero’s and his wife, Poppea, Aliturius was able to acquaint Josephus with Poppea, who became so charmed by Josephus that she freed his fellow Pharisees from captivity.4 Thus, Josephus had established himself as a mediator for the Jews to the Romans.

But when Josephus arrived back in Judea from Puteoli, rumors were spreading quickly of the Jews’ desire to revolt against the Romans. At hearing such thoughts, Josephus scolded the supporters of insurrection. Meanwhile, the Syrians, then under the authority of the Romans, were appalled by such a speculation, and they lashed out against the Jews violently. That being said, the Jews were forced to defend themselves against the governing powers.5

When the Jews were victorious in the first counter-assault against the Romans, they were excited by their victory, and thought that they could defeat and conquer the Romans. Around 66 CE, the Jewish Zealots began building up their armed forces in preparation for war. Though Josephus thought this was foolish, he hesitantly accepted his appointment as a commander in Galilee and began fortifying the cities surrounding Galilee. But Josephus eventually met his defeat at the hand of Vespasian, the Roman General, and was captured in the aftermath of the battle for Jotapata.6

Josephus and his troops, who had taken refuge in a cave, were discovered by the Romans. According to Josephus’ History of the Jewish War, Josephus had a close acquaintance under the dictate of Vespasian, who offered clemency from the Romans. However, Josephus was threatened by his Zealot peers that, if he were to take such an offer from the Romans, they, the Zealots, would kill him. But, Josephus argued that there was no reason to die when they could live under the Romans, who offered peace. Josephus’ peers were not convinced, and the only compromise they offered was a pact of collective suicide. It was then decided that, instead of committing suicide, each soldier would draw lots to determine who was to be killed first and last.7  Curiously, Josephus drew the last lot, and so was left alone with one other, who determined with Josephus that they should take the Roman offer of clemency rather than kill each other.

Thus, Josephus returned to Roman society peacefully, and after correctly predicting that Vespasian would succeed Emperor Nero’s throne, he was granted a special position within the Roman government. A deeply Hellenized Jew, Josephus ben Matthias took the family name of Vespasian and became Flavius Josephus. He wrote many histories, including The Antiquities of the Jews, The Jewish War, and The Life of Flavius Josephus. For some time, Josephus pursued a position as mediator between the Romans and Jews, but due to the distrust he had earned from both parties, his attempts were never successful.

Criticized deeply both in his own time and after, Josephus lived a life of leadership in an admittedly difficult time. Pressured politically and religiously to choose one side over another, Josephus found himself drawn to the rich meaning of Jewish tradition and philosophy, as well as to the rationalism of Greco-Roman philosophy. Distressed by the radicalism of the Jewish Zealots and desiring the peace and tolerance of the Romans, Josephus was a model for tolerance in a politically, religiously, and socially polarized Empire.

  1. Flavius Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, §2. translated by William Whiston.
  2. Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, §2.
  3. Josephus, The Life of Josephus, §21. translated by Steve Mason; See Introduction, §2
  4. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, §3.
  5. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 18:1:1:3-10.
  6. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, §37.
  7. Flavius Josephus, “The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem,” in Wars of the Jews 3:8:5.
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16 Comments

  • Flavius Josephus seemed to be extremely egotistical at first with the first paragraph being about how he boasted about himself and how many other wise people went to him for advice, but as the article continued I found that he was fair and like any other man that wanted to get ahead in that time. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a traitor but I also feel like he didn’t fully respect the Jews as he should have.

  • Although I never heard of Josephus before, I do know about Greek mythology and Jewish history, so this article wasn’t completely foreign to me. The Jewish people seem to have had horrible things happen to them all throughout history, so I wasn’t surprised to see that they had trouble with the Romans in the article. I also learned about the zealots and their radical actions must have been what lead to the issues.

  • Flavius Josephus seemed like a reasonable and intelligent man would forge a strong connection between the Jewish people and the Roman. He made the correct decision of living with the Romans, who offered peace, rather than living with Zealots, who seemed to be fanatics. I would regard Josephus more as Hellenized moderate rather than a traitor for many reasons. Overall, the article seemed to be well-written and well-researched.

  • I found it interesting in this article that Josephus had become torn between the Romans and the Jews. In fact, what surprised me was that he initially had to work against the Jews for the Romans but later became fond of their tradition and philosophy. Similarly, it was interesting that he found favor in the rationalism of the Roman philosophy.

  • Considering he was never really trusted by neither side, I’d say he was leaning more towards a moderate. I feel a little bad for him though since he desired their characteristics and had allies on both sides which makes it even worse since neither side came to trust him. I also found it extremely lucky that he was the last one to draw lots for the collective suicide and was one of the last ones standing and suggested surrender.

  • This article was very interesting, due to the fact that I didn’t know that much about this topic. In my opinion he was a man of survival he knew where to be and what to be. He reminds me a lot of the girl who betrayed the Aztec empire. La malinche in both being very smart and do what ever it takes to look out for themselves first. While also having to pick there people versus the enemy, as we can tell history hasn’t been kind to neither one of them as well. But this was a very interesting story of a man who just knew how to survive.

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