Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius)

Yosef ben Matityahu (c. 37-100 CE) is known principally as the writer of the books The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. His writings are the main source of information that we have of the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, from the period of the Hasmoneans to the Great Revolt. His books contain a great deal of information on Jewish society in his time in the Land of Israel and the nearby Diaspora. This information covers aspects of political, economic and religious life, and details of the geography of the land.

Overview

Yosef ben Matityahu was born in Jerusalem in the year 37 CE, to a respected family of Cohanim (Priests). He was active in public life in Jerusalem, and was close to the noble priestly families and to the moderate circles. During the preparations for the Great Revolt, he was appointed as commander of the Galilee. When the Galilee was captured by the Romans, Yosef was taken prisoner. He was able to acquire the trust of the Roman commanders, and took upon himself the task of documenting the revolt. He accompanied the Roman army and recorded the events of the war. Following the end of the war, Yosef lived in Rome, where he wrote his books.

In Rome, Yosef ben Matityahu was also given the name Josephus Flavius.

Yosef ben Matityahu is a controversial figure; some see him as a traitor, since, following his capture, he in effect wrote for the Romans. In any event, Yosef ben Matityahu presented himself in his books as a Jew, proud of his origins and of the traditions of his forefathers, and even made sure to present the Jews in a positive light.

His Life

Protoma (bust of a human head) from the Roman period, apparently depicting Yosef ben Matityahu. From From: Josephus' 'The Jewish War' trans. Samuel Adrianus Naber, Leipsic, 1888-96 (Wikimedia Commons).

Yosef ben Matityahu was born in Jerusalem in the year 37 CE, to a respected family of Cohanim (Priests) on his father’s side, while on his mother’s side he was related to the family of the Hasmoneans. According to his own testimony, in his Life of Flavius Josephus, by the age of 16 he had investigated the three main communities within Jewish society at the time – the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes – ultimately deciding to join the Pharisees.

Yosef was married three times – to three women who apparently were Jewish – and he had three sons from these marriages: Hyrcanus, Justus and Agrippas. Yosef ben Matityahu died in Rome, around the year 100, but his burial place is unknown.

Read about the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Try to imagine the reasons for Yosef ben Matityahu’s choice of the Pharisees.

Leadership

I wonder how Yosef got so friendly with the emperor’s wife…

Yosef was active in public life in Jerusalem, and was close to the noble priestly families and moderate elements in the city. In the year 64 CE he participated in a Jewish delegation to Rome, whose aim was to free members of the Jewish priesthood who had been arrested by the authorities on charges of rebellion. He was successful in this mission, because of the fact that he endeared himself to the wife of the Emperor, Nero, who assisted him in having the accused freed.

Yosef’s visit to Rome made a deep impression on him. We may assume that that at this stage he did not know it, but later he was to return there.

In the year 66, the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans broke out. Yosef was among those who opposed the revolt, because he doubted its chances of success, but when it did break out, he joined the rebels. He was even appointed by the Sanhedrin as commander of the Galilee district, although he lacked military experience and in spite of his doubts regarding the success of the revolt. In his autobiography, Life of Flavius Josephus, Yosef ben Matityahu recounts that he was sent to the Galilee to calm things, and to maintain the loyalty of the residents to Rome. But it may be assumed that he had written this to justify himself to the Romans, in whose city he was living when he wrote the book.

You lostFor some months Yosef ben Matityahu was involved in organizing the Jews of Galilee, reinforcing their fortifications and training the soldiers. However, his moderate views and his hesitancy in preparing for war aroused the anger of his opponents, Justus of Tiberias, who forced him to flee from that city, and the military figure from the Zealots, Yohanan of Gush-Halav, whom Yosef ben Matityahu had described as a radical. Yohanan even convinced the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to remove Yosef from his position, and four members of the Sanhedrin, supported by 2,500 men, were sent to do so. However, the delegation were not able to meet with him, and he continued to hold his position as governor of Galilee.

Read about Yohanan of Gush-Halav, described by Yosef ben Matityahu as a radical. Imagine a meeting between him and Yosef ben Matityahu – indicate when (i.e. at what stage during these events) and where the meeting took place, and write the conversation between them – it may be that Yosef ben Matityahu will write about this meeting in the blog that you will write for him…

Depiction of Josephus
Depiction of Yosef ben Matityahu. From the Works of Flavius Josephus, translation by William Whiston (Wikimedia Commons).

Siege of Yodfat

In the spring of 67, additional Roman legions, under the command of Vespasian and his son Titus has joined  the battles  against the Jews, and conquered most of the Galilee. With the advance of the Roman army, the majority of Yosef ben Matityahu’s soldiers deserted, and he was left in the fortress of Yodfat with a handful of fighters. After 47 days of siege, the Romans forced their way into the city and destroyed its walls. Yosef and  forty of his men hid in a cave, but their hiding place was discovered. Yosef was promised that he would be allowed to live if he gave himself up to the Romans. And so he tricked his colleagues who wanted to commit suicide rather than being taken prisoner. He convinced them to cast lots in order to decide who would kill whom. After all but Yosef and one other soldier were dead, Yosef ben Matityahu surrendered to the Romans.

When the captive Yosef was brought before Vespasian, he won his heart by claiming that he had the power of prophecy, predicting that Vespasian would become emperor. Indeed, following some months in which Yosef was in prison, Vespasian was elected emperor, and he freed Yosef from his captivity. It was Vespasian who gave Yosef ben Matityahu his new name – Josephus Flavius – since Flavius was Vespasian’s family name.

Map of Galilee during the Revolt

The Writer

Yosef ben Matityahu, now called by the Romans Josephus Flavius, received the task of documenting the revolt. He accompanied the Roman army and recorded the events of the war. In this role he attempted to mediate between the Romans the Jews fighting in Jerusalem. Yosef returned to Eretz Israel in Titus’s entourage, and during the siege of Jerusalem, in the year 70 CE, called on the rebellious Jews to surrender. Both sides treated him with suspicion. The Jews sought to capture and punish him, while the Romans accused him of treason, but he was protected by Titus. Following the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Titus permitted Yosef to take Torah scrolls, and at his request 190 women and children who took refuge in the Temple were spared. He even asked Titus to pardon three people who had already been crucified.

Yosef ben Matityahu returned to Rome together with Titus, and was received with great honor by Vespasian. He was granted Roman citizenship, a residence in one of the imperial palaces, and an annual pension for the remainder of his life, which allowed him to concentrate on writing his books, of which the following survived: The Jewish War, in which he described the events of the Great Revolt; Antiquities of the Jews, in which he described the history and traditions of the Jewish people; Against Apion, in which he defends Judaism against the attacks by non-Jewish scholars; and Life of Flavius Josephus, an autobiography written in response to Justus of Tiberias, who had accused him of treason when Yosef was commander of the Revolt in the Galilee.

 

To review Yosef ben Matityahu writings, press here.


Imagine a demonstration by Jews who considered Yosef ben Matityahu a traitor, and opposite them Jews who did not think so. Write down some of the slogans that may appear on the placards used by each group.


"The Jewish War" - Story of the Great Revolt

The Jewish War was Yosef ben Matityahu’s first book, in which he described the events of the Great Revolt – the revolt of the Jews against the Romans. The book was written in Rome in the years 75-79 CE, at the invitation of Emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, who wished to document the course of the war.

In  the introduction to the book, Yosef ben Matityahu writes that he had written it twice: once in the “language of his fathers” (apparently, Aramaic) and once in Greek. The version that survived is that which was written in Greek. The books comprises seven sections – the first describes the period prior to the war – from the days of the Hasmonean kingdom up to the death of Herod in 4 CE. The other parts of the book describe the various stages of the Great Revolt, up to the fall of Masada in 73 CE (see Masada: The Musical Saga).

Apart from the description of the war itself, the book has a number of aims, that reflect Yosef ben Matityahu’s connections with the two sides: on the one hand he was writing for the Romans, but on the other hand he was a member of the Jewish people. Yosef wanted to show the power of Rome, and to deter any future rebellion. It’s also important to remember that he wrote the book in Rome, for the Romans, and so was careful not to antagonize his patrons, Vespasian and Titus, commanders of the Roman army in Eretz Israel who put down the revolt; in his book he praises them and stresses their positive intentions. In the book he even claims that Titus did not intend to destroy the Temple, and that the burning of the Temple was not carried out with Titus’s approval.

But Yosef ben Matityahu was also a member of the Jewish people, and since the book was meant primarily for a non-Jewish audience, a further aim was to present the Jews as a peace-loving people. He did this by condemning those who were to blame for the war, and thus stressed that it was not the whole of the Jewish people who were to blame for the war and for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but only the radical elements in Judea – the Sicarii in particular and other Zealot groups in general. For this reason he concealed – many times intentionally – information about the character of the Jewish fighters, their motives, the extensive public support that they enjoyed, their brave exploits, and so on. Yosef also blamed the Roman procurators, particularly Florus, whose corrupt behavior brought the Jews to the point that there was no alternative to rebellion. In his writings, Yosef presented his personal view and that of the circles with which he was close, and attempted to justify his behavior during the war, since many of the Jews thought him to be a traitor.

The circumstances of Yosef’s life provided him with the appropriate tools for writing the book: he was able to obtain information about both sides – Jewish and Roman; he knew Hebrew and Aramaic – the two languages spoken by the Jews – and had no difficulty in interviewing prisoners who had been captured by the Romans; when he lived in Rome following the Revolt, he had access to official Roman documents. But his aims in writing, and his personal involvement in the war, require that what he wrote be read cautiously, particularly his interpretation of the facts. After all, he went over to the enemy camp, and wrote for the Romans, and so his books need to be read with a critical eye.

Yosef ben Matityahu, who described the events in great detail, declares at the end of the book that his whole intention was to arrive at the truth:

“Here our history has come to its end, the history that we promised to recount accurately, for those who wish to know in what manner the war of the Romans against the Jews was waged. And I leave it to the readers to judge how well I have recounted it; but regarding its truth, I will not hesitate to say forcefully that throughout the recounting it was my sole intention.”

(Yosef ben Matityahu, The Jewish War)

Historians who base themselves on his books to recreate the events that took place in his time claim that his writing is not objective.

Objective or Not?

With whom do you agree? Is there such a thing as objective writing?