Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Josephus |
The rogue historian

Josephus is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 249, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Josephus: Scholar, turncoat, he chronicles Jerusalem’s fate

Josephus - The rogue historian

Josephus - The rogue historian
Along with the Bible, the works of Josephus were readily available in medieval Europe. This illumination is taken from a twelfth-century Flemish edition of The Jewish War.

Within the lavish opulence of the imperial household at Rome during the triumphant late-first-century years of the Emperors Vespasian, Titus and Trajan, there labored a Jewish intellectual. He was cherished by those in authority as a scholar, a statesman and a true ally of Rome, while despised by his fellow Jews as a sleazy scoundrel and turncoat. Whether Flavius Josephus deserved either of these two reputations historians were to argue about for the next twenty centuries.

The Jewish case against Jerusalem-born Josef ben Matthias was not complicated. As the general commanding the Jewish defense of Galilee, his detractors said, he had deliberately surrendered the key city of Yodefat to the Roman forces, thereby exposing Jerusalem to siege. The Slavic edition of Josephus gives a different version of the story, notably that he contrived a suicide pact with forty of Yodefat’s most valiant defenders, then engineered things so that the other thirty-eight of them perished, after which he and the thirty-ninth escaped to go over to the Romans.

Worst of all, they said, he later retired to Rome to write The Jewish War, a version of the Jewish struggle for independence that absolved the Romans of their bloody role in it and whitewashed his own black record as well. For these and other failings, Jews in a later age condemned him.

To some Jews, however, and to the Romans, Josephus was nothing more than a realist. Though he fought in it, he opposed the war as hopeless. He refused suicide because he believed it sinful. His history of the Jewish War was accurate, and certainly did not leave the Roman record unblemished, they said.

Finally, his other great treatise, Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people, did much to acquaint non-Jews with their magnificent tradition and to explain why the Jews separated themselves from Roman society. In an appendix to his history, a work he called A Life, which some historians recognize as the first autobiography to survive from the ancient world, Josephus proudly discloses his distinguished pedigree–his descent from the Hasmonean Jewish royal family, his own superb education in Jewish law, how as a mere youth his advice on the Law was sought by the scholars of the Temple.

In a.d. 62, when Josephus was twenty-six, he headed a delegation to Rome to secure the release of some Jewish priests imprisoned by Nero for what Josephus calls a “trifling” offense. He succeeded in his mission by ingratiating himself with Poppaea, Nero’s mistress, who became his prime connection with the imperial establishment.

Four years later, when the revolutionary movement took over Jerusalem, Josephus opposed the war as unwinnable. So did the high priests and many Pharisees. Some historians dispute this, however, contending that what made the war hopeless was the Jewish failure to first secure alliances with rebellious elements in neighboring Roman provinces and with the old Persian empire beyond the Euphrates.

His pessimism notwithstanding, the revolutionary government put Josephus in command of Galilee, widely recognized as a cauldron of radical revolutionary ferment. How well Josephus did as a general, posterity was to know only through the words of Josephus himself. (A rival account by one Justus of Tiberius, referred to by ancient authors, has not survived.) Delicately, Josephus here shifts to the third person, so that Josephus tells of the brilliant strategies of Josephus, and of Josephus’s daring and valor that won so much Roman admiration.

Even so, as one town after another fell to Vespasian’s advancing legions, attention focused on Yodefat, the last and strongest citadel of Galilean defense. The place fell with scarcely the loss of one Roman life, after a traitorous Jewish defender revealed to the Romans that the guards on the walls were exhausted and usually asleep just before daybreak. By then, the Roman earthwork, ramped up against the city walls despite vain efforts from within to stop it, had reached almost to the height of the walls anyway. In a pre-dawn attack, the legions broke into the city and began a methodical slaughter of its inhabitants, saving only women and children.

Josephus himself, as commander, took refuge in a concealed cave with thirty-nine other defenders. When the Romans verged on discovering their hideaway, the others deemed suicide preferable to Roman slavery. Josephus openly disagreed. God gave us life, he argued. “It is to Him that we must leave the decision whether to take it away.”

To this appeal his comrades reacted in rage, some running at him with their swords. He saved himself by coming up with another plan. They would draw lots. The first man to draw would be slain by the second, and the second by the third. This ghastly process of murder unfolded therefore, writes Josephus, until there were only two men left, he and one other, “whether by providence or good fortune.” (The Slavic version of The Jewish War says it was neither, but that Josephus had rigged the draw.) These two, having seen thirty-eight of their fellows die (and likely having helped at least one to do so), looked hard at each other, decided to forget the pact, and gave themselves up to the Romans.

Thereafter, Josephus became a close associate of the Roman general Titus and later of his father Vespasian whose ascent to the imperial throne Josephus had accurately predicted. Under Titus, Josephus became the senior Roman spokesman to the enemy. After the war, he retired to Rome, and settled down in one of the imperial apartments with a new wife to write his histories.

Since his histories cover the period of Jesus’ ministry, the question arises: What does Josephus say about Jesus? The answer is one brief reference, about 135 words, known as the Testimonium Flavianum. It describes Jesus as “a wise man, if a man at all,” identifies him as “the Anointed,” meaning the Messiah, and reports that Jesus rose from the dead. To this day (i.e., the early 90s of the first century), marvels the text, Jesus’ followers “have not disappeared.” Most historians consider at least a portion of this reference an interpolation, something added later by a Christian editor.

Josephus offers considerably more detail on John the Baptist. He describes John’s forceful preaching and his baptismal rite which, says Josephus, was not a means to have sins forgiven, but rather a consecration of the body that had already been purified by good behavior. Herod Antipas ordered John put to death as a possible revolutionary rabble rouser, says Josephus, an explanation somewhat at odds with the biblical account.A

It was the Christians, far more than the Jews, who preserved Josephus’s writings over the centuries. Indeed, in many eighteenth- or nineteenth-century households, his works stood in the bookshelf beside the Bible. Whatever his biases, he provides a distinctly non-biblical view of the world that Jesus lived in. His death, which is not recorded, occurred in Rome, perhaps as late as a.d. 120 when he would have been eighty-three years old.

A. Herod Antipas is tricked into pledging the execution of John the Baptist through the wiles of Herodias, whose marriage to Herod, John denounced.

This is the end of the Josephus category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 249, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Josephus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at