from jesus to christ - the first christians

Josephus, Our Primary Source

The writings of this first-century Jewish historian are critical for reconstructing the world of Judaism into which Jesus was born.


L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

One of our most important sources for all the history of this period is the Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus himself grew up in and around Jerusalem; he claims to have been a part of the Pharisaic group. But he was also obviously from a fairly prominent family. He's very important because he lived through and was actually part of the first revolt against Rome. After the revolt, he then went on to live in a lavish retirement at Rome itself. And there wrote the history of the Jewish War, and also another work, called "The Antiquities of the Jews," a long, extensive history of the Jewish people ... from Biblical days coming down to his own time. Josephus wrote mostly at the end of the first century ... around the year 100, just a few years before and after. And so he gives us a perspective on the whole century of development that had gone before, from the time of Herod the Great down to his own day, when these profound changes were taking place.

And how reliable was he as an historian?

Josephus, as an historian, is something of a puzzle sometimes. On the one hand, he's an eyewitness to many of these events. And in many cases, he's the only source we have for some very important events and stories. On the other hand, Josephus embellishes, as do most ancient historians. They tell the story. They create speeches for generals, even when they weren't there to hear them first hand. And so, sometimes we have to be careful with these ancient history writers like Josephus. ... Josephus is [also] interesting from another perspective because he clearly embellishes the stories from his own experience. Josephus himself had gone over to the Roman side at the end of the revolt. And so, when we tell some of these stories, it's clear that he's also defending his position ... defending his judgments and his change.

Eric Meyers:

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University

Josephus is certainly among the most enigmatic personages in the history of the Jewish people. He wrote "The Jewish War," he wrote a history of the Jewish people, and he was commander of the Galilean forces of the army that opposed Rome for two years. He gave up those forces in a really traitorous event..., and that makes him a very complex person. Because after 68, he becomes the major spokesperson against prosecuting the war with the Romans. And it is that change of attitude on his part, that we can find parallel in other segments of the population, that makes reading Josephus and understanding him so difficult. After the war he winds up in Rome [sponsored by] the Roman Emperor, and gets paid to write the rest of the history he didn't finish in Palestine.

[As historians of the ancient world,] Josephus is our primary source for reconstructing history in the late second temple period and in the time of Jesus and the first century. Josephus is our Bible, he is our map. He is the guy we all turn to. And his complexity and his change of opinions on key ideas and key events of this time make him very difficult to take as a reliable source.

Josephus winds up in Rome, sponsored by none other than Vespasian, the Roman Emperor, and being paid to write the history of the Jewish people. And because of that, and because of his happy life that he lived out during his days in Rome, many people have distrusted his account of events.

Read Josephus' descriptions of the sack of Jerusalem and of the suicide at Masada.

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published april 1998

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