Term Paper: Was Josephus a Historian?

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Flavius Joephus

Much of the Jewish history during the 1st century comes from the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Many scholars extol Josephus for his documentation of these times, since they are the only ones that depict the historical events occurring during this turbulent time.

For example, Schurer (1994) writes of Josephus as "The best known historian of Jewish affairs in the Greek language" (221-222). He says that one major work is Comprehensive Delineation of the Entire Jewish History from the beginning to Josephus' own time, which is "the most extensive work on Jewish history in the Greek language" that has "retained the lasting favor of Jewish, heathen and Christian readers, as to have been preserved entire in numerous manuscripts" (221-222). Not everyone, however, has such high praise for Josephus' work. Recently, it has been noted that his text does not properly reflect the circumstances during this time, he runs from being vague to exaggerating and even contradictory and incorrect in his information. However, this does not mean that Josephus should be completely disregarded, but rather recognized as an historian with shortcomings and read and believed appropriately.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (2009), Josephus was born in A.D. 37 in Jerusalem to a well-known priestly family who traced its paternal ancestors back five generations. His mother's family claimed descent from the Machabeans who, under the leadership of Mathathias, revolted against the oppression of the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. After receiving his education and proving his strengths in the areas of memory and decision making, at the age of 19 he began supporting the Pharisees and traveled to Rome in A.D. 64. His goal was to request that Nero release some of the imprisoned Jewish priests who were his friends. He won the favor of the emperor's consort and succeeded in his cause, but was quickly losing his ties to Judaism. He even saw its struggle against paganism as useless. Two years later, he returned to Jerusalem as the Jewish people began to revolt. At first he joined the other aristocrats in their lack of support of the other Jews. Later, he joined the insurgents and became a commander-in-chief in Galilee, guiding diplomatic negotiations and military activities. When the Roman General Vespasian advanced into Galilee, Josephus and other insurgents defended themselves in the Jotapata fortress. As it ran out of water and similar necessities, the Romans took over the fort and killed most of the patriots. Josephus, who had hidden in a cistern, only emerged when an agreement was made to spare his life. He ingratiated himself with Vespasian, and was given only two years as a prisoner.

When Vespasian became emperor, Josephus traveled with him as far away as Egypt and then joined Titus to witness firsthand the destruction of the Holy City and Temple. Josephus attempted to persuade the Jews to surrender, but celebrated the fall of the city with Titus in Rome and was pleased with his Roman citizenship and payment of money and lands in Judea. When Titus became emperor and then his brother Domitian, Josephus continued to be valued for his literary works. In fact, most of his life was spent enjoying the Roman life and completing his historic writings in Greek "to influence the educated class of his time and free them from various prejudices against Judaism" (Catholic Encyclopedia 2009). However, the first version of the Jewish War was written in Aramaic.

During his lifetime, Josephus wrote four works in 30 volumes, of which he took much pride in comparing them to earlier works: In Jewish War, he starts his account of the great Jewish revolt against the Romans by stating that previous narratives of the war have been inaccurate, rhetorically inflated and prejudiced, but he instead promises to present an accurate and unbiased version. He modeled himself after Thucydides, who also criticized his predecessors. It is difficult to believe that Josephus could have thought himself capable of being objective when he was trying to have one foot in each of the Roman and Jewish camps throughout his life.

The Jewish War is mainly based on his memoranda made during the war of independence on the memoirs of Vespasian and on letters of King Agrippa. While Josephus' story of warlike events is reliable, the account of his own doings is strongly filled with much self-adulation (Cohen 2002). According to Feldman (1988), the date of the Josephus' publication of the Jewish War is controversial. In the Life of Josephus, Josephus says that Justus of Tiberias wrote his history of the war, which was supposedly an attack on the one by Josephus, 20 years before Josephus' reply in the Life of Jospehus, appended to the Jewish Antiquities and composed in 93/94 A.D. This would give a year limit of 73/74. However, this does not appear likely, since the Jewish War includes an overview of the siege of Masada in 74 and a reference to the Temple of Peace's dedication in 75. In addition, Cohen (2002) and Stern (xxx) both challenge the normally cited date for the publication of the Jewish War as 75-79, saying that Titus emerges much more favorably than does Vespasian, and that Caecina is portrayed in black colors, which reflects that after being favored by Vespasian, he was executed by Titus for his conspiracy against him. Cohen (2002) believes that Josephus may have written the first six volumes and then someone else completed the seventh at a later time.

Mazar (1982) also raises the question of whether in the sixth book of the Jewish War, which ends with the fall of Jerusalem, may not really be the end of the work in the first edition. Similarly, Schwartz (1990) concludes that in the seventh book as far as to Titus' return to Rome, Josephus has introduced extraneous material with unusual crudeness and that his second section of the book is complete with what can be considered irrelevant, as far as a Jewish historian is concerned, or unnecessarily long accounts of the Commagenic war and the invasion of Media by the Alani and Sicarii at Alexandria and at Cyrene. Schwartz thus argues that the seventh book of the Jewish War was composed in an earlier version under Titus and revised early in Domitian's reign and again under Nerva or early in Trajan's rule. In agreement, Morton and Michaelson (xxx) both conclude that this last book is definitely different in style from the rest of the Jewish War books. Perhaps, adds Mazar (1982), Josesphus may have written his work originally in six books and added a final one only to make it parallel with another famous work about a war fought by rebels against the Romans, the Bellum Gallicum, written by Julius Caesar, both the Jewish people's and Josephus' great hero.

Mazar (1982) also notes the unusual fact that in the seventh book of the Jewish War, Josephus presents Melcguzedek as the first one to build the Temple in Jerusalem. This entirely omits Solomon's role. Once again, there is a discrepancy, this time between the Jewish War and the Jewish Antiquities. As both Mazar and Schwartz find, there are a number of places in the former works where Josephus in his reference to biblical events is inconsistent with the Bible and with the Antiquities and where his objectives appear to be to improve the importance of the cult and the upper priesthood of Jerusalem administrators.

Surburg (nd) writes of the Jewish War: When evaluating the historical value of The Jewish War, it should not be forgotten that the Memoirs are written from a Roman point-of-view. In addition, because Josephus does write the book under imperial patronage, it inclines the work to have a pro-Roman bias. For example, says Surburg, comparing The Jewish War and the Life of Josephus does not present a consistent understanding of the Galilean campaign. Laquer (nd) goes one step further by saying that Josephus deliberately misrepresented details, in order that he could be favored by King Agrippa II.

Josephus' second work was called Jewish Antiquities and contains 20 books with the entire history of the Jews from the Biblical Creation to the outbreak of the revolt in A.D. 66. In addition, he quotes many passages from Greek authors whose writings are no longer available. At the same time, he once again straddles both sides by making allowance for the tastes of his Gentile peers by arbitrarily omitting and embellishing certain scenes (Catholic Encyclopedia 2009), especially in the first books. In books XII-XX, he writes about the times before the coming of Christ and the foundation of Christianity. These are the only historical sources for much of the information provided and give dates and confirmation that supplement the Biblical narrative. The story of Herod the Great is found in books XV-XVII. Book XVIII includes the passage about Jesus Christ, which is one of the most noteworthy from the Christian historical perspective:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was… [END OF PREVIEW]

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