Reading Josephus

Reading Josephus June 15, 2015

I have been working on the two or three centuries before the start of the Christian era, a time of epochal transformations in the Jewish world, and the essential prehistory of the early Church. One of the major sources for that time, obviously, is the work of Josephus, with which I have been wrestling a good deal. In the next couple of columns, I’ll make some observations about using his work, in the hope that these people will find them of use. His writings do tell us a massive amount about the cultural and political background of the earliest Jesus Movement.

Through a timely defection, Josephus (37-100) survived the Jewish Revolt of the 60s AD, in which he had originally been an insurgent commander. He published the Jewish War around 75, and by 94 he published the Antiquities of the Jews, Ioudaikē Archaiologia. That work reported and summarized Biblical history, presenting it in the most favorable and benevolent manner for a cultured Greco-Roman audience. For later historians, though, the most valuable section is his narrative of events from the fourth century BC up to the Jewish Revolt, and in some periods Josephus is virtually our only reliable source. He is essential for understanding the extraordinary tangled and treacherous family history of the Herods. (The account in the Antiquities also appears in the first book of the Jewish War).

The importance of the Antiquities has long been known, and back in the 1730s, English theologian William Whiston published a translation that incredibly, is still being used and regularly reprinted. (Whiston incidentally was a leading radical religious thinker of his day, and an anti-Trinitarian). Because it is so long out of copyright, Whiston’s translation is easy to use and circulate, and it is readily accessible online. You can find it for instance from Sacred Texts, CCEL, or Even if people use more scholarly editions and translations, it is a powerful temptation just to download those convenient quotes from Whiston’s 300-year old version.

But here’s the problem. Most versions of the Antiquities circulate with minimal footnotes, leaving readers in a morass of names and places, without context. In most cases, we struggle to find dates, or even centuries. Open the book at random, and you are lost in a maze of men called Demetrius, Alexander and Ptolemy, who are persistently engaged in poisoning and betraying each other. Move on a few more pages, and we have a completely different set of men also called Demetrius, Alexander and Ptolemy, who are morally no better than their predecessors. It’s Game of Thrones on steroids. Even a reasonably well-informed reader is tempted to despair.

I can’t provide much of a road-map through the mayhem, but I will describe some of the main lessons I learn from the text.

By way of approaching the Antiquities, here is a framework. Its twenty books begin, naturally enough, with the Creation of the World. In Book X, the Jews are still in Babylonian Captivity, and Book XI includes the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great. The remaining books cover these time periods:

Book XII         323 – 160 BC

Book XIII       160 – 67 BC

Book XIV       67 – 37 BC

Book XV         37 – 19 BC

Book XVI       19 – 7 BC

Book XVII      7 BC – 6 AD

Book XVIII     6 AD – 40 AD

Book XIX       40 – 44 AD

Book XX        44 – 66 AD

We then segue naturally into the events reported in his Jewish War, the start of which summarizes the last sections of the Antiquities.

To put this in context, Alexander’s conquest marked the beginning of a new historical era. From the 330s through the 160s, the Jews were subject to one or other of the two great Hellenistic empires that claimed Alexander’s heritage, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid realms. These empires battled for control over the region, which changed hands several times. The Ptolemies ruled Palestine for most of the third century, and the Seleucids then dominated from 201 until the 160s. Beyond the political sphere, Jews entered decisively into the global cultural synthesis that grew from Alexander’s achievement. That new world is neatly symbolized by the hundreds of cities named for the various Greek overlords, all the Alexandrias, Antiochs and Seleucias scattered across the known world, from North Africa into India, and through Central Asia.

In the 160s BC, the Maccabeans led a successful Jewish revolt. As I wrote in an earlier column,

A Jewish kingdom was de facto independent by the 140s, and thereafter broke free of outside control. The Hasmonean [Maccabean] dynasty produced such active and powerful leaders as John Hyrcanus (134-104) and his son Alexander Jannaeus (103-76), who conquered substantial lands east of the Jordan and even enforced conversions to Judaism. Its rulers took the title of king, basileus. This Hasmonean realm survived until the Romans established control in 63 BC.  By the time of Jesus’s young manhood in the 20s AD, that flourishing independent kingdom was just passing beyond the distant horizon of memory, but it remained a potent dream.

Obviously, Josephus was not trying to allocate his historical attentions equally, or to provide fair and balanced treatment of each era. He wrote vastly more about affairs the closer they got to his own lifetime and his personal knowledge. We dearly wish that he said more about the era from roughly 323 through 67 BC, when there are so few other sources to draw on. In contrast, plenty of other writers tell us about affairs in the Roman era.

However, he does give us a lot of priceless information on those confusing centuries, which I will discuss in my next columns.


Louis Feldman, “Josephus,” in William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy eds.,The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 3: The Early Roman Period (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 901-921. For a fine collection of related essays, see Jack Pastor, Pnina Stern, and Menahem Mor, eds., Flavius Josephus (Boston: Brill, 2011).


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