Flavio Josefo y su relato en la historia del Segundo Templo.
Percepciones y fuentes

Joseph Sievers
Pontificio Instituto Biblico, Roma

It is a great honor for me to be invited to speak to you here at the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano. Two years ago I had the privilege to visit here for the first time, but my connection with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America goes back almost thirty years. I still remember a meeting with a committee that was to decide about my admission to a doctoral program of the Seminary. In the end, I did my doctorate at Columbia University, not at the Seminary. But I was fortunate enough to be able to take some courses in Talmud and an unforgettable seminar with Prof. Bickerman at the Seminary. Even after all these years and a change of continent, I am still linked in deep friendship to present and former faculty members of the Seminary, and of course, every time I am in New York, I use its magnificent library.

Today I have been asked to speak about Flavius Josephus, an interesting and sometimes controversial person, important for both Jewish history and the history of Christianity.


Flavius Josephus was born Yosef bar Mattityahu in Jerusalem in 37 or 38 CE. He belonged to a priestly family that perhaps was distantly related to the royal house of the Hasmoneans. [1] They had been high priests and rulers in Judea from the middle of the second until the middle of the first century BCE. [2] Yosef grew up in Jerusalem. He claims to have been a child prodigy, consulted for advice in legal matters by chief priests and other “v.i.p.’s” when he was only fourteen years old (Vita 9). He also claims to have thoroughly acquainted himself with the three principal branches of Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes and to have spent time in the desert with an ascetic hermite by the name of Bannus. But after three years with him, he decided to return to city life. Whether at that point he became a Pharisee is much debated. At age twenty-six, he travelled to Rome on a mission on behalf of a few priests who had been arrested in Judea and sent to Rome for trial.

Shortly after his return to Jerusalem, the first great revolt again Rome broke out in 66 CE. Josephus’ role in it remains unclear – and controversial. [3] According to his Jewish War, he was chosen as a general in charge of Galilee, in order to defend the north of the country from the imminent Roman invasion (Jewish War 2.562-568). According to his own autobiography, written much later (in the 90s CE), his role was more that of a peace keeper, trying to keep the situation calm and under control in Galilee (Vita 28-29). In any event, in the end he surrendered himself to the Romans instead of carrying out his part in a suicide pact. His life was spared but he was taken prisoner. After his arrest, he predicted that Vespasian, the commander of the Roman army, would become emperor. When this prediction became true he was released. [4]   In addition, as a reward for his services, he was granted – by the Emperor Vespasian – Roman citizenship, a wife, a house in Rome, a pension, and a piece of land in Judea (Vita 423-425). Josephus seems to have spent the rest of his life in Rome, where all of his surviving works were composed. These include, besides the seven books of the War, the Jewish Antiquities in twenty books with an appended autobiography, the Vita. His last work, a defense of Judaism in two books, is generally known by the title Against Apion (or in Latin Contra Apionem).

In Rome, Josephus could live a fairly comfortable life. The home he was given had earlier been the private residence of Vespasian (Vita 423). Unfortunately, we do not know exactly where this was. But one likely candidate is the house where Vespasian’s son Domitian was born, on a street called “The Pomegranate,” perhaps to be identified with Via Quattro Fontane [5] [— less  than one kilometer from the Biblicum (Pontificio Istituto Biblico) where I teach].

Unfortunately, we do not have any direct information about Josephus’ relations with the Jewish community in Rome. Was he accepted as a member? Was he considered a traitor because of his cooperation with Titus and the Roman army? We do not know, but the overall shape of his works may provide us with some useful indications. As I will try to show further on, whatever the purpose and intended audience of the Jewish War, it was not primarily a piece of Roman propaganda. Rather, it may be viewed as an effort, albeit not entirely successful, to correct widespread misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. The twenty books of the Antiquities are clearly addressed to a primary audience of somewhat benevolent and interested Greek-speaking Gentiles in Rome and, secondarily to Jews. [6] This has to be seen in the context of the difficult post-war years, when anti-Judean  and anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread in Rome. Martin Goodman suggests, in opposition to earlier assessments, that “Josephus should be given credit for extraordinary bravery in standing up for the right of Roman Jews to continue to practise their religion even in a deeply hostile environment.  … The sheer length and thoroughness of the Antiquities are testimony to the seriousness with which he undertook his chosen role. If the Jews of Rome were as grateful for his efforts as they should have been, Josephus in his old age will not have been a lonely man.” [7]

For reasons that may have nothing to do with his person or even with his works, Josephus was apparently largely forgotten among Jews for several centuries. His works, as those of Philo of Alexandria and the large body of Jewish literature that goes by the name of Old Testament Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha were not preserved by Jewish communities but by Christians in Europe and in regions as far apart as Ethiopia and Armenia [not the one in Argentina]. In the tenth century, however, in Southern Italy a history of the Second Temple period was composed in Hebrew by an anonymous Jewish author, based largely on a Latin translation of the works of Josephus. This work became popular under the name of Yosippon and was later attributed to Josephus himself. Joseph Ha-Kohen put it this way: “All my people is aware that no author has arisen in Israel comparable to Yosippon the priest, who wrote of the war of the land of Judea and of Jerusalem.” [8] More recently, it seems that the Yosippon has lost popularity, but Josephus is increasingly being recognized as an invaluable source for Jewish history in the Second Temple period.

Josephus’ fate in Christian circles has been entirely different. His works were frequently quoted or used by patristic authors from the second century onward. Some even think that Luke used him as a source for the Acts of the Apostles. Here is not the place to discuss the causes and ramifications of the reception of Josephus in Christian circles or to enter into the question whether or how he spoke about Jesus. [9] Here we cannot  pass judgment on Josephus the person. Some of his shortcomings and failings are well known. Yet, his thirty volumes are primarily not an attempt to defend his own reputation, or that of the Romans. Rather, they are a positive defense of the Jewish people and of Judaism in an environment that after the drawn-out and disastrous war was in large part deeply hostile. In any event, all his works, except the Vita, were translated into Latin in the sixth century. There are numerous medieval manuscripts of these translations. During the Middle Ages, Josephus was the most widely read ancient author in Europe. Schreckenberg states that Josephus’ literary influence had no equals, with the sole exception of the Bible. [10] Over 130 Greek and about 230 Latin manuscripts, and innumerable citations in later authors are telling signs of a broad interest in his works. [11] There is also a large number of early prints of Josephus’ works. Between 1470 and 1535 there were over twenty printings of parts of the Latin translation of Josephus.

Since then, Josephus’ fortunes have varied. Translations into all the major western (European?) languages exist, but many are by now quite antiquated, perhaps a sign that Josephus has been more often quoted than actually read or studied in depth. The latest German translation of the Antiquities appeared over a century ago. [12] In the English speaking world, the translation by William Whiston, originally published over 250 years ago (in 1737), has seen more than 200 reprints and is now available even on CD-ROM and on the internet (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/), along with the Greek text. Obviously, that translation is now rather obsolete. In addition to many errors it also offers in its notes the absurd notion that Josephus became a Christian, and even bishop of Jerusalem. More reliable and widely used by scholars and students is the edition of the Greek text with English translation and notes by Thackeray, Marcus, Wikgren, and Feldman in the Loeb Classical Library series. [13] An international project is under way (with the participation of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars working in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Scotland, and the United States) to produce a new English translation and full commentary for all the works of Josephus. The first two volumes have recently appeared. [14]

A new French translation of the Antiquities, with the Greek text on facing pages and rather extensive notes, is being undertaken by a team of scholars based at the École biblique in Jerusalem. The first three volumes, covering Books 1-7 have already appeared. [15]

In Spanish, the most recent complete translation was published – as far as I have been able to find out – in Buenos Aires in 1961. [16] Except for the War, new Spanish translations of Josephus’ works have appeared within the past decade. [17] This is definitely a sign of a rising interest in our author, especially in Spain [Perhaps I might add that an Argentinian student of mine, Federico M. Colautti, this year completed a doctoral dissertation on the topic “La Pascua en Flavio Josefo.” At the moment it is being translated – from Spanish into English – for publication.].

What We Know Only Through Josephus

More than 125 years ago, Emil Schürer wrote in a handbook for the history of the period 175 BCE – 135 CE that has become and remains famous: “Gracias a la actividad literaria de Josefo en Roma, vieron la luz sus obras, sin las cuales no se habría escrito la presente historia.” [18]  

During the past century our knowledge about the period studied by Schürer has been vastly increased and corrected through the results of archaeological excavations and through advances in various branches of historical, literary, and sociological studies. The Qumran documents, consisting of fragments of over eight hundred scrolls, as well as other writings found near the Dead Sea over the past 55 years, are of inestimable value for our knowledge of Jewish history from the second century BCE till 68 CE. Photographs of all of these manuscripts are available since 1991. The very first translation of almost all decipherable texts appeared in Spanish in 1992. [19]

Despite all this new source material, and enhanced techniques in studying previously known material, the above-cited sentence of Schürer remains valid even in the revised edition, from which it was cited. For without Josephus we would lack a historical frame of reference, which is necessary for pulling together the diverse fragmentary data. But Josephus must not be used simply as a quarry for individual pieces of information, as is frequently done even now: If one wants to find out details about King Herod and his family tragedy, how he killed his favorite wife, Mariamme, and three of his sons, one obviously consults the works of Josephus. If one seeks information about the governorship of Pontius Pilate or about the high priests of Jerusalem during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, one can of course turn to Josephus, with moderate success. If one is interested in the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, so splendidly refurbished by Herod, again Josephus is the main written source. He often provides rather detailed information, which is frequently picked up rather uncritically. Great consternation and disappointment follow, when his data turn out to be unclear, imprecise, or even manifestly erroneous or contradictory. They often agree with archaeological finds, but in other instances they do not. [20] Instead of being disappointed, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we have chosen a correct approach to the works of the first-century historian Josephus.

If we want to understand Josephus’ works and draw the fullest possible benefits from our reading of them, we have to ask first, in what situation, from what viewpoint, and to what purpose Josephus wrote. Secondly, we have to try to find out more about his sources of information, and how he utilized them. Only as a distant third, we may ask what we can learn from Josephus and how reliable he is as an historian.

He completed at least a first Greek version of the Jewish War, between 75 and 81 CE, only a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70. He wrote this after an earlier version in Aramaic that has not been preserved (Jewish War 1.3). Hence, Josephus wrote his books in a situation of relative comfort but in dependance on Roman patronage (“proteksia”??). It is sometimes stated that his Jewish War is a piece of Roman propaganda, commissioned by Vespasian. This is certainly an inappropriate oversimplification. [21] While it is true that Josephus has high praises for Vespasian and Titus, and tries to shield them from any criticism for the destruction of Jerusalem, [22] his point of view is not that of an advocate of Rome. Rather, as he states in his preface, he wants to rectify earlier accounts that “either from flattery of the Romans or from hatred of the Jews misrepresented the facts” (Jewish War 1.2) and “they want to show the greatness of the  Romans, while they consistently minimize and disparage everything concerning the Jews” (Jewish War 1.7). Josephus does identify with his people: “… in my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments, nor refuse to give my personal sympathies scope to bewail my country’s misfortunes” (Jewish War 1.9). Yet he tries to show that the war against the Romans was caused by inner dissension or factional strife (in Greek stasis) and that the responsibility for it lay with a small clique of “tyrants,” “revolutionaries,” and “bandits.” They forced the Romans to act, against their will, and ultimately caused the fire that destroyed the temple. Josephus’ prime witness for this view of the matter is Titus himself, the conqueror of Jerusalem and later emperor (Jewish War 1.10). Josephus again and again stresses the ruinous effects of inner dissension and strife. Thus, the first main section of the War’s narrative begins with the words “Factional strife (stasis) befell the leaders of the Judeans at the time [of] Antiochus Epiphanes” (Jewish War 1.31) – that is, after 175 BCE, about two hundred and forty years before the outbreak of the war with Rome. He often uses this term stasis or related words at crucial junctures: strife between the Hasmoneans Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II led to Pompey’s intervention in 63 BCE. [23]   Josephus calls war, tyranny, and internal strife the three worst disasters for a city, in ascending order of seriousness (Jewish War 4.397). This theme is elaborated also in the Antiquities where Josephus in his biblical paraphrase emphasizes the tragic character of the revolt of Korah [Coré??] (Antiquities 4.11-66, 76; cf. Num 16). This emphasis has parallels in Greek historiography. Josephus clearly emulated Thucydides who showed the devastating consequences of civil war (stasis), using the example of the city of Korkyra (Peloponnesian War 3.82-84).

From all this we can see that in the Jewish War one of Josephus’ chief goals is to show that the responsibility for the war against Rome (66-74 CE) and thus for the destruction of Jerusalem, rests with the “tyrants” and the internal strife caused by them. This view of affairs serves to demonstrate the innocence of the majority of the Jewish people, obviously including Josephus himself. On the Roman side, corrupt or incompetent procurators exacerbated the situation, but the Roman authorities, especially Vespasian and Titus, were basically benevolent. To what extent this view corresponds to the facts is a different question, that is not easy to answer. In any event, we have to keep in mind this apologetic viewpoint of Josephus, if we want to adequately judge his work. [24]

Josephus’ Sources

The appeal to Josephus’ relations with Greco-Roman historiography leads us to the difficult question of his sources. Generally, following a widespread practice, he does not inform us from where he drew his information. This is true especially of the War. In the Antiquities, he claims that he will follow the biblical accounts with precision: “Nuestra narración pondrá de manifiesto con toda exactitud y en el lugar adecuado, a medida que vaya avanzando, los datos contenidos en las Escrituras. Prometo, en efecto, poner en práctica este propósito, sin añadir ni restar nada.” The meaning – and veracity – of this statement have long been debated. Evidently Josephus takes liberties with the biblical narrative, not to speak of other portions of the Bible. Yet, he does seem to want to convey to his readers what he considers the essence of the biblical message.

Apparently, Josephus treats books like 2Ezra (which he uses in place of Ezra and Nehemiah) and First Maccabees just as he treats the books of the Hebrew Bible. He makes extensive use of First Maccabees, which became part of the Greek Bible and was included in the so-called Septuagint. Just as he had given a rather free paraphrase of much of the Hebrew Bible, he adapted First Maccabees to his own and his audience’s needs. Whether he used First Maccabees and other books in their Hebrew original or in Greek translation is often impossible to verify on the basis of the available data because he always tries not to duplicate the wording of his sources (even of his own Jewish War). [25] In elaborating a synopsis of First and Second Maccabees and of Josephus War and Antiquities I recently had occasion to have a closer look at the working methods of Josephus and his use of sources. [26] Some striking features emerge. First, Josephus does not deviate much from the outline of First Maccabees, except in the beginning of the account of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes and of the religious persecution initiated by him (1 Macc 1 || Ant. 12.237-256). For example, the very complicated account of Judas Maccabee’s expedition to Transjordan and related events, in 1 Macc 5, is closely paralleled in Ant. 12.327-353.

Josephus on Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes

One rather remarkable incident, where we can almost look Josephus the author over the shoulder is his first presentation of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes in the Antiquities (Ant. 13.171–73). [27]   Scholars have puzzled about the origin and location of this passage,which has no apparent connection to its context. Daniel Schwartz expresses a common assessment when he states: “As it stands, the function of this passage is incomprehensible.” Schwartz then argues that Josephus adopted this passage in somewhat mutilated form from another source, Nicolaus of Damascus, and inserted it into his paraphrase of First Maccabees. [28]

Something Schwartz and others did not notice is the absence of  a parallel to 1 Macc 12:19–23. In these missing verses, First Maccabees quotes a letter from Areus, king of Sparta, to a high priest Onias. This letter is regarded as spurious by a majority of authors. [29] Whether the letter is authentic or not, traditions about the kinship between Judeans and Spartans are attested not only here but independently also in Second Maccabees, where it is said that (in about 169 BCE) the former high priest Jason sought refuge in Sparta “because of their kinship” (2 Macc 5:9).

This letter, however, is not entirely absent from Josephus’ work. Instead,  he has quoted it earlier on in the Antiquities (Ant. 12.226–227). Josephus’ version of the letter differs from that in First Maccabees in several respects. [30] Above all, it includes a closing formula absent from First Maccabees, mentioning the name of the messenger, the form of writing, and the seal (Ant. 12.227). Josephus does not add such information in any of the other numerous documents he quotes in full or in part. [31]   How then this information came to be included is difficult to ascertain.

In the Antiquities (from about 12.265 to 13.214) Josephus follows 1 Macc 2–13 in structure, sequence, and even in many formulations. [32] These parallels are so extensive that the idea of an intermediate source to explain the differences between the two accounts creates more problems than it solves. One way of accounting for many of the differences would be to assume that Josephus had a different version of First Maccabees at his disposal than the one we know. While this is an expedient solution for a few passages, possibly including the additional material in Josephus’ Areus letter, it does not seem to take sufficient account of Josephus’ own literary activity in reshaping the material provided by his sources. Some additions in Josephus cannot be explained by his fanciful reworking of First Maccabees. Rather, it is quite clear that occasionally he did use additional sources for general Hellenistic history and even for various elements of internal Judean history.

Having previously quoted the Areus letter, what could Josephus have done when his paraphrase reached 1 Macc 12:19? I see three “logical” possibilities: (a) he could have quoted the letter again; (b) he could have given a cross reference to his earlier quotation; (c) he could have ignored the letter either because it did not seem to belong to the present context or because it would have meant a repetition, and simply turned to the continuation of the story. The text as it stands in the available manuscript tradition and consequently in our editions follows none of these scenarios. Instead of a mere repetition or omission we have a substitution, namely the schools passage (Ant. 13.171–173) in place of the letter. The most economical hypothesis to explain this fact is in assuming a situation somewhat analogous to one described by Cicero, the famous Roman writer philosopher and politician. He writes to his friend and “publisher” Atticus:

Now I have to own up to a piece of carelessness. I sent the book “On Glory” to you and in it a preface which is in Book III of the “Academics.” This happened because I have a volume of prefaces from which I am in the habit of selecting when I have put a work in hand. And so back at Tusculum I pushed this preface into the book which I have sent you, forgetting that I had used it up already. But in reading the “Academics” on shipboard I noticed my mistake. So I scribbled out a new preface straight away, and send it herewith. Please cut the other off and glue this one on (tu illud desecabis, hoc adglutinabis). Give my love to Pilia and my heart’s darling Attica [the wife and daughter of Atticus]. [33]

As every analogy, this one is not perfect. To change a preface, presumably one cut at the beginning of the scroll was sufficient, whereas in Josephus’ case the text stood in the middle of the book and thus required more elaborate cutting and pasting. Cicero’s second preface obviously had the same function (and basic form) as the first. In Josephus no such connection is evident. Yet, the schools passage is almost identical in length with Josephus’ treatment of the letter, including introduction and concluding remarks. The letter is shorter in First Maccabees, but Josephus often adds introductory and/or concluding remarks, which may be of varying length. [34]  

A French scholar working at the Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] has noticed a possible relationship between the omission of the letter and the presence of the schools passage at this point. She conjectures that Josephus did not want to repeat the Areus letter and suggests that since he had a certain amount of free space, he decided to use it. [35] It should be noted, however, that the omission of that letter gave him a certain amount of space to fill only if the manuscript had earlier been formatted in a definite way for a “first edition.” In other words, only in a “second edition” would he have had to substitute some new text. Otherwise Josephus could simply have skipped the letter and continued with his paraphrase of First Maccabees. Instead, in this space he inserted a brief note on the schools. Thus, even though I do not know why and exactly how Josephus introduced the presentation of the three schools, I think I am able to answer the question why he introduced the passage here rather than in some other more obvious context. By cutting out the superfluous repeated quotation of the Areus letter, Josephus gained a short space here. Since in a first draft it would not have been necessary to insert a passage in order to fill a blank space, it appears that the passage was added as an afterthought, when a certain layout for the manuscript had already been fixed. We cannot be sure by what method this was done. Cutting and pasting or writing over an erasure would appear to be two likely possibilities. Although the entire manuscript tradition reflects the present arrangement of the text, this passage does seem to provide new strong evidence for a “second edition” of the Antiquities. The whole question of a second edition raised by earlier scholars seems to be worth taking up again. Here one would need to keep in mind the peculiarities of producing a “second edition” of an ancient work in manuscript form. [36]

If Josephus included the presentation of the three schools only in a second draft or “second edition” of his work, what does this say about the next passage that deals with Pharisees and Sadducees, i.e. the famous banquet scene?

At the beginning of this account (Ant. 13.288) it is said that the success of the high priest and ruler John Hyrcanus I caused envy among the Judeans. At the end (Ant. 13.299), he brought the stasis to an end. What is described in between, however, is not civil war but a banquet to which Hyrcanus had invited the Pharisees. Through the impertinence of one person who demanded that Hyrcanus resign from the high priesthood, the banquet ended in a rift between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees. As a result, Hyrcanus decided to switch over to the Sadducees and to abrogate the laws of the Pharisees. Since this account refers back to our schools passage (Ant. 13.171–173), [37] we need to consider it too as the fruit of an afterthought. Indeed, here too it is evident that Josephus has inserted a block of material that does not fit the context. For the account of the banquet with its introduction and conclusion slices apart a sentence in War 1.67: “Envy toward the success of John [Hyrcanus] and his children roused a stasis among his countrymen and a numerous opposition gathered and did not quiet down until, after having been stirred to open war, they were defeated.”

Now it seems reasonable to argue that the new material was included not only after the composition of the War, but also after the first edition or at least a first draft of Book 13 of the Antiquities. The banquet story, however, does not replace any previous text. [38] Thus, if it was added to a finished manuscript, it would perhaps have required inserting an entire new papyrus sheet, a not unknown procedure.

This is not the place to enter again into a discussion of all the references to the Jewish schools of thought in Josephus. Yet it may be useful to point out that in Ant. 18.11 Josephus states that he has spoken about them “in the second book of the Judean War” and excuses himself for dwelling on them briefly once again. He makes no mention of the earlier reports in Ant. 13. Similarly, in Ant. 15.371, when speaking about Pharisees and Essenes being exempted by Herod from a loyalty oath, he points forward to a later clarification about the identity of these groups, probably meaning that provided in Ant. 18.11–22. [39] Again, he makes no reference to the relevant passages in Ant. 13, which thus appear even more clearly as later additions. [40] When Josephus finally reaches his own autobiography, an appendix to the Antiquities, he states that he has often said  that there are three Jewish schools of thought (Life 10). Such a statement makes more sense if reference is made not only to the long digression on Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes in Book 2 of the War (2.119–166) and its short parallel in the Antiquities (Ant. 18.11–22) but also to Ant. 13.171–173 (and perhaps to 288–298). Although we cannot hold Josephus to consistency in this matter—and I do not know how often is “often” for him—yet, here we seem to have one further argument in favor of the Life in its present form being attached only to a revised version of the Antiquities. Unfortunately, nothing is to be learned from this observation about an absolute date for such a revision.

If the references to Pharisees and Sadducees in Book 13 of the Antiquities (Ant. 13.171–173 and 288–298) are later insertions, then the Pharisees were basically absent from Josephus’ accounts until the very end of Alexander Janneus’ reign (Ant. 13.401), whereas the Sadducees made their first appearance in the schools passage in War 2.119–166, related to events after the year 6 CE, and in its brief parallel in Ant. 18.11–16. As is well known, the Pharisees are first mentioned in the War (1.110) at the time of Queen Alexandra (76-67 BCE), where they are described as growing next to her into power. From this passage nothing would lead one to suspect that by then they had a history of at least three quarters of a century behind them. While the insertion of the two passages in the Antiquities may or may not be considered justified corrections to Josephus’ earlier incomplete picture, one ought to ask why he remained so negligent about this matter even in an early version of the Antiquities or, put differently, why he decided at some point to introduce the three schools in the context of early Hasmonean history. Otherwise, we hear of them beginning only toward the end of the reign of Alexander Yannai, fully two generations later. This question, however, will perhaps always remain unanswerable. These observations on Josephus, our main source for the history of these groups, should make us a bit more cautious when we speak about the history or the teachings of the Pharisees. Earlier generations of scholars, in my estimation, “knew too much” about them and imaginatively filled in a picture that was very often colored by polemics or apologetics.

If I have shown that Josephus at times used the cut-and-paste method of composition, known to all of us who write with the help of a computer, this does not mean that he always simply copied his sources. Quite to the contrary, as has been evidenced by many recent studies, he usually reworked them, trying to adapt them to his own intended audience, and to his stylistic tastes. One may go on forever studying the question of his sources. I believe that much progress can still be made. For example, through my work on a synopsis I have learnt that at important turning points in the Antiquities he adds chronological data. At least in some cases it is patently clear that this additional information comes from a separate source. [41]

How Reliable is Josephus?

Now we may at last address the third question I had posed in the beginning. One always asks of the work of an historian “how much can we depend on the information provided?” “How biased is his or her presentation?” In the case of Josephus the answer to these questions is extremely complex. In many instances it is evident that his historical accuracy depends on the accuracy of his sources. He uses the biblical accounts from the creation of the world to the Babylonian exile, generally without questioning the authority or accuracy of the biblical text. In some cases, he tries to give rationalistic explanations to difficult texts. In other cases he acknowledges that not everyone may agree with his interpretation. He ends his account of Daniel, whom he considers one of the greatest prophets (Ant. 10.266), as follows: “Yo he escrito estos datos así como los encontré y leí, pero si alguien quiere interpretarlos de otra manera, mantenga su discrepancia sin que yo se lo reproche” (Ant. 10.281).

One of the extra-biblical sources that Josephus used most extensively is Nicolaus of Damascus, born in Damascus about 64 BCE. He became an adviser to King Herod the Great and under his influence wrote a world history or “Histories down to his own time, in 144 books. Herod’s reign was of course given pride of place in these books. [42] Josephus made ample use of these Histories, both for Book 1 of the War and for the Antiquities, especially in Books 13-17, but also elsewhere. As has been noted, in the War Josephus largely accepts and repeats the favorable and at times heroic portrayal of Herod. In the Antiquities instead, written years later, he took a more critical stance toward Herod, and toward Nicolaus. Of the latter he writes:

Pero es que él [Nicolás] redacta permanentemente el resto de su obra siguiendo este mismo proceder, puesto que, como vivía en palacio con el propio rey, escribía en la forma que le fuera grata a aquél y en tono servil, tocando sólo los temas que le proporcionaran gloria y modificando, en cambio, y ocultando con todo celo muchos de sus comportamientos a todas luces inicuos, llegando Nicolás en su proceder incluso a querer convertir en una bella acción el asesinato de Mariame y de sus hijos, tan cruelmente cometido por el rey, lo que lleva al historiador a acusarla a ella de impudicia y a los jóvenes de conspiración, al tiempo que Nicolás aprovecha siempre su obra para elogiar demasiado desmedidamente al rey cuando sus acciones han sido justas y para justificarle ardorosamente sus desafueros. [43]

Thus Josephus did have a critical mind and did not merely copy his sources. When it comes to speeches, he feels entirely free to compose them for the occasion, without any attempt to reconstruct what may actually have been said. This regards speeches given in his own time but also those by earlier figures. For example, First Maccabees reports a farewell speech by Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabee and his brothers, in which he recalls the merits of the Biblical heroes (1 Macc 2:51-68). Josephus, instead, makes this into a philosophical exhortation to virtue (Ant. 12.279-284). Where in the biblical account of the Akedah (Gen 22) Abraham is rather tight-lipped, in Josephus’ Antiquities he pronounces a lengthy and emotional speech, in which he explains his belief in the immortality of Isaac’s soul (Ant. 1.228-231). Such freedom in reporting speeches is characteristic of most ancient history writing. [44] Speeches were an important means to express the writer’s own opinions, through the mouth of his chosen subjects. They are thus, also in the case of Josephus, of assistance in finding out about the writer’s own point of view. Evidently, Josephus does not identify with every speaker in the same way. Thus, one of the longest speeches in the War is attributed to Eleazar, the leader of the last defenders of Masada. In his speech he proposes collective suicide as the most honorable way out (War 7.333-336, 381-388) whereas Josephus has elsewhere through his own speech (War 3.362-382) and his controversial action denounced suicide as unacceptable. Josephus’ Eleazar claims that the body is the prison of the soul. Such an idea sounds incongruous in the mouth of one of the freedom fighters at Masada. As a matter of fact, this idea is alien to Jewish anthropology but was quite current in Greek philosophy. Josephus, apparently under the influence of popular philosophy, attributes the idea of the soul’s being freed from the body by death not only to Eleazar (War 7.344), but also to the Essenes (War 2.154). The same idea is even attributed to the Hasmonean King Aristobulus I in his deathbed speech (War 1.84; Ant. 13.317). This king is often considered to have been a Sadducee—who should not have believed in any life after death. Perhaps then in these instances Josephus tells us more about concepts of the afterlife that he was familiar with than about the actual beliefs of the persons described. [45]

It is clear that Josephus did not write as an uninvolved, unprejudiced, objective observer. He had a personal stake in all his writings. This he admits, as we have seen, right from the beginning of his first work (War 1.9-12). We have seen that he did not merely copy his sources but that he adapted them to the needs of the particular work and the intended audience. He strives to transmit the substance of his best sources quite faithfully. As far as we can check, he is – most of the times –relatively successful in this endeavor. It is equally clear, however, that he accepted some mistaken notions and added numerous errors of his own. Therefore one does need to read his works with a critical eye. Yet, whoever wants to understand the history of the time between the Maccabean uprising and the destruction of the Second Temple, has to turn to Josephus. Otherwise one deprives oneself of the best historical source available for this period that is so crucial to Christians as well as to Jews.

[1] Klaus-Stefan Krieger, “War Flavius Josephus ein Verwandter des hasmonäischen Königshauses?” Biblische Notizen 73 (1994) 58-64. The Hasmoneans are a Jewish family who are called in Josephus and in rabbinic literature sons/children of – an otherwise unknown – Asamonaios or Hashmonay. The most famous among them is Judas, called Maccabee. The books of Maccabees are, ultimately, named after him. His surname is often extended to the whole family or at least to his brothers Jonathan and Simon, the first high priests. Simon transmitted high priesthood and rulership over Judea to his heirs and thus in a sense founded the Hasmonean dynasty.

[2] Jonathan became high priest in 152 BCE (1 Maccabees 10:20-21). The last Hasmonean high priest, Jonathan Aristobulus III, was murdered by order of King Herod the Great in 35 BCE (Antiquities 15.53-56; Jewish War 1.437). Aristobulus’ grandfather, Hyrcanus II, who had been high priest, with interruptions, from 76 to 40 BCE, was executed by Herod in 30 BCE (Antiquities 15.164-182; Jewish War 1.433). The first Hasmonean to also take the title of King was Judas Aristobulus I (104-103 BCE). The last king was Mattathias Antigonus (40-37 BCE).

[3] See a discussion of the bibliography in Louis H. Feldman, “Selective Critical Bibliography,” in Josephus, the Bible, and History (ed. L. H. Feldman and G. Hata; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 340-44.

[4] Jewish War 3.399-408; 4.622-629. A reference to Josephus’ prediction is found also in the Roman historian Suetonius (Vespasiano 5.6) and elsewhere. In rabbinic literature a similar prediction is attributed to Yohanan ben Zakkai (Abot de Rabbi Natan A 4; B 6; Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56ab). Cf. Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. Jerusalem, 1974-84, 2.122-23.

[5] See Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus. Translation and Commentary. Vol. 9 Life of Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 168.

[6] Concerning this see Steve Mason, “‘Should Any Wish to Enquire Further’ (Ant. 1.25): The Aim and Audience of Josephus’s Judean Antiquities/Life” in Understanding Josephus, ed. Steve Mason (Journal for the Study of Judaism Suppl. 32; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 20-34.

[7] Martin Goodman, “Josephus as Roman Citizen,” in Josephus and the History of the Greco-Roman Period: Essays in Memory of Morton Smith, ed. F. Parente and J. Sievers (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 338.

[8] Dibrey ha-yamim le-malkhey Zarefat u-malkey Bet Ottoman ha Togar (Sabbioneta, 1554), Preface, quoted in Yosef H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 61. Joseph Ha-Kohen (1496-1578), whose parents had been expelled from Spain, lived in Italy. He was a physician and was very active in several Italian Jewish communities. His historiographical writings were considered a breakthrough that earned him the designation as “the second Josephus.”

[9]   The so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.63-64), a short passage that speaks about Jesus, has received a disproportionate share of attention. The bibliography is immense and keeps growing. Few scholars attribute the passage as it stands to Josephus. A majority considers it basically Josephan, with some Christian interpolation. A strong minority views the entire passage as a Christian interpolation, created by or shortly before Eusebius. See most recently Gaia Lembi, “Il Testimonium Flavianum, Agrippa I e i fratelli Asineo e Anileo. Osservazioni sul Libro XVIII delle Antichità di Giuseppe,” Materia giudaica. Rivista dell’associazione italiana per lo studio del giudaismo 6.1 (2001), 53-68, especially 56-60.

[10] Heinz Schreckenberg, Die Flavius-Josephus-Tradition in Antike und Mittelalter (ALGHJ 5; Leiden: Brill, 1972) xiii-xiv, cf. 9; citing Robert Eisler, IHSOUS  BASILEUS OU BASILEUSAS: Die messianische Unabhängigkeitsbewegung vom Auftreten Johannes des Täufers bis zum Untergang Jakobs des Gerechten (2 vols.; Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1929-30) 1.xlviii: “dass—nächst der Bibel—keine Schrift des Altertums einen so gewaltigen und weitreichenden Einfluss auf die Geschichtsauffassung der abendländischen Menschheit gehabt, keine Geschichtsquelle so viele gelehrte Federn in Bewegung gesetzt hat … wie das Werk dieses . . . Flavius Josephus.”

[11] For a description and evaluation of this material cf. Schreckenberg, Die Flavius-Josephus-Tradition and id., Rezeptionsgeschichtliche und textkritische Untersuchungen zu Flavius Josephus (ALGHJ 10), Leiden: Brill, 1977.

[12] A team is working on a project to produce a new edition and German translation of Josephus’ works. The first volume has just appeared: Flavius Josephus, Aus meinem Leben (Vita), critical edition, transl. and commentary ed. F. Siegert et al. (Tübingen: Mohr, 2001). The same team also provides a regularly updated Josephus bibliography (http://www.uni-muenster.de/Judaicum/) that contains almost 2000 items published since 1985.

[13] Josephus. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray et al., 9 (10) vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926-65.

[14] Flavius Josephus. Translation and Commentary. ed. Steve Mason,  vol. 3 Judean Antiquities transl. and comm. L. H. Feldman (Leiden: Brill, 2000); vol. 9 Life of Josephus, transl. and comm. S. Mason (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

[15] Étienne Nodet et al., Flavius Josèphe, Les Antiquités Juives (Paris: Cerf), vol. 1 (1990, 32000); vol 2 (1995); vol. 3 (2001).

[16] Luis Farré, Obras completas de Flavio Josefo (5 vols.; Colección Valores en el tiempo 26-30; Buenos Aires: Acervo Cultural, 1961). This translation also includes Fourth Maccabees, a work that in the past was frequently though mistakenly attributed to Josephus.

[17] Flavio Josefo, Autobiografia – Contra Apion, transl. by Margarita Rodriguez de Sepulveda, intro. by Luis García Iglesias (Biblioteca clasica Gredos 189; Madrid: Gredos, 1994); id., Antigüedades judías, ed. and transl. José Vara Donado (AKAL/clásica 45-46; 2 vols.; Madrid: Torrejón de Ardoz, 1997). The quotations from the Antiquities are taken from this translation.

[18] First published in 1874 in German as Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte, this work was revised several times by Schürer himself. A thoroughly revised and updated English edition in four volumes was produced by a team of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars under the title The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135), revised and edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, Martin Goodman et al. (3 vols. in 4; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973-87). This edition has been translated into Italian (Brescia: Paideia, 1985-98) and Spanish (Historia del pueblo judío en tiempos de Jesus 175 a. C.-135 d.C., Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1985-), here Tomo I, p. 76.

[19] Textos de Qumrán, edición y traducción de Florentino García Martínez (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 1992).

[20] The most famous example is his description of the capture of Masada which is confirmed – in part – by the archaeological record. On this whole question see the overview by Louis H. Feldman, “Josephus and Archaeology,” in Josephus, the Bible, and History (ed. L. H. Feldman and G. Hata; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 435-40.

[21] Josephus does say that the Emperor Titus approved of his work and signed it (Vita 363), but on the whole the work is more a defense of the innocent majority of the Jews than a piece of Roman propaganda. See S. Mason, Life, p. 149 n. 1498.

[22] Cf. Jewish War 7.110-113.

[23] Jewish War 1.19, 140; Antiquities 14.22, 58.

[24] On the apologetic character of Josephus’ works see Klaus-Stefan Krieger, Geschichtsschreibung als Apologetik bei Flavius Josephus (TANZ 9; Tübingen: Francke, 1994).

[25] See Christopher Begg, Josephus’ Story of the Later Monarchy (BETL 145; Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 625-26.

[26] Joseph Sievers, Synopsis of the Greek Sources for the Hasmonean Period: 1–2 Maccabees and Josephus, War 1 and Antiquities 12–14 (SubBi 20; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001).

[27] A more detailed treatment of this problem may be found in my article “Josephus, First Maccabees, Sparta, the Three Haireseis—and Cicero,” JSJ 32,3 (2001) (forthcoming).

[28] “Josephus and Nicolaus on the Pharisees,” JSJ 14 (1983): 161-62.

[29] See Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 1:72; 2:50–51 n. 124; Christian Habicht, 2. Makkabäerbuch (JSHRZ 1.3; Gütersloh: Mohn, 1976), 226 n. 9b; Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 1:263–64; E. S. Gruen, “The Purported Jewish-Spartan Affiliation,” in Transitions to Empire: Essays in Greco-Roman History 360–146 B.C. in Honor of E. Badian (ed. R. W. Wallace and E. M. Harris; Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1996), 254–69.

[30] Raimondo B. Motzo (“Giuseppe e il I Maccabei,” in Ricerche sulla letteratura e la storia Giudaico-Ellenistica [Rome: Centro Editoriale Internazionale, 1977], 680; repr. from Saggi di storia e letteratura Giudeo-Ellenistica [Florence: Le Monnier, 1924], 212) considers these differences confirmation of his thesis that Josephus did not follow First Maccabees directly but used another (priestly and anti-Samaritan) source which contained the fuller information.

[31] Jonathan A. Goldstein,1 Maccabees (Anchor Bible 41; Garden City, NY: Doubleday), 459. For a full study of the largest class of documents in Josephus see now the careful work by Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius (TSAJ 74; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998).

[32] See my Synopsis of the Greek Sources for the Hasmonean Period.

[33] Cicero, Att. 414.4 (16.6.4 ) (Shackleton Bailey, LCL).

[34] Cf. 1 Macc 10:15–17 || Ant. 13.43–44; 1 Macc 10:44–45 || Ant. 13.57–58a; see also Ant. 14.185–189, 196, 224, 228, 265–267.

[35] Emmanuelle Main, “Les Sadducéens vus par Flavius Josèphe,” RB 97 (1990): 170.

[36] For general questions Hilarius Emonds’ work (Zweite Auflage im Altertum, Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1941) is still a valuable resource, although with regard to Josephus—and Cicero—it is disappointing. Josephus is not even mentioned, and lost works of Cicero are treated as if they were extant.

[37] “the Pharisees, … one of the schools of thought of the Jews, as we have already explained above” (Ant. 13.288); cf. Mason, Josephus on the Pharisees, 197.

[38] Whether it is inserted in the “correct” context is a different question and its historical value is another problem. A growing number of scholars connect the story of the banquet (as in its parallel in the Babylonian Talmud [b. Qid. 66a]) with Alexander Janneus rather than with John Hyrcanus. See Main, “Sadducéens,” 199–201; Günter Stemberger, Pharisäer, Sadduzäer, Essener (SBS 144; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1991), 100–102.

[39] The Pharisees alone are introduced in Ant. 17.41–46. On this passage see Mason, Josephus on the Pharisees, 260–80.

[40] E. Main argues that except for one phrase dependent upon War 2.165 the description of the Sadducees in Ant. 18.16–17 depends on the account of Hyrcanus’ banquet in Ant. 13.289–298 (“Sadducéens,” 171). What Main has shown, however, are close parallels between the two passages (see the synoptic table ibid. 168), not a literary dependence. In light of the above observations, if these parallels indicate a dependence, it seems to be rather in the opposite direction.

[41] See Ant. 14.4, 66, 389, 487.

[42] Cf. Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974-84), 1.248-50 (#96).

[43] Ant. 16.183-185 (transl. Vara Donado); cf. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors 1.244-245 (#93).

[44] On this problem see already Thucydides 1.22.1.

[45] On this question see my “Josephus and the Afterlife,” in Understanding Josephus, ed. Steve Mason (Journal for the Study of Judaism Suppl. 32; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 20-34.