Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Josephus and His Works.

What literature did this sad period produce? There was neither heart nor leisure to turn to poetry or philosophy, or even to write a second "Lamentations." But in the prosaic field of history some important works were produced by one individual, who hardly deserves to be included in the fold of Israel—Josephus.

His Early Life.

He was born in Jerusalem in the year 38 C.E. under the regime of the procurators; so he never knew an independent Judea. Of studious bent, he was consulted (so he tells us) on points of law at the early age of fourteen. At the age of 26 he went to Rome like Philo, to intercede with the Emperor Nero for some of his brethren, falsely charged by the procurator, Felix. His persuasive address and political shrewdness won the day. He returned dazzled with the splendor and magnitude of the city on the Tiber. He realized now the impossibility of Israel undertaking a successful war against it. Therefore he never should have been chosen to command one of Judea's campaigns.

Josephus vs. Jeremiah.

After the war he sought and obtained the liberty of some of the captives. But he was satisfied to receive Roman citizenship from the hand of the emperor who had overthrown the Jewish State—Vespasian, and even appended the emperor's first name, Flavius, to his own. When we see him living at ease on a pension and a tax-free estate given by Rome while his brethren were working in the lead mines of Egypt or glutting the slave markets of Europe we cannot but contrast his character with that of Jeremiah who had been placed in similar circumstances some centuries earlier.

In the last days of the first nationality, when Babylonia was thundering against the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had belonged to the Peace Party of his day, not for reasons of expediency, such as actuated Josephus, but from intense religious conviction. (See vol. iii, People of the Book, chap. xxviii.) Nebuchadrezzar, regarding this attitude as friendly toward Babylon, had offered to Jeremiah ease and liberty after Judah was laid in the dust. But he scorned to receive gifts from the enemies of his country or to enjoy benefits through their misfortune. Though Judah had rejected his advice and even persecuted him for it, he made their lot his own, miserable though it was. Like Moses, he died in the wilderness with the generation who had brought that fate upon themselves, because they lacked his faith.

History of the Jews.

Let us forget Josephus the soldier; let us remember Josephus the scholar. Though in his last years he may possibly have lived as pagan, he certainly wrote as Jew. He loved his people, but lacked the magnanimity to share their misfortunes. This was his fatal weakness. Posterity is grateful to Josephus for his History of the Jews, called "Antiquities of the Jews" in twenty volumes, the writing of which may have formed the chief occupation of his later years. Perhaps he felt that he might yet serve Israel's cause in this way. He begins his chronicle with the Bible records, which he embellishes with many a Midrashic story such as that of Moses being given choice of a plate of gold and of fire. He carries the narrative right down to the procuratorship of Florus. Writing for Greek and Roman readers, he sought to give them a better and truer estimate of his people. Indeed, in all his works, he never loses an opportunity to defend the honor of Israel. In his next work, "Wars of the Jews," in seven books, he begins with Antiochus Epiphanes, thus duplicating part of his history. But the first two books are but introductory to his real theme, the war with Rome. This history is not only his greatest work, but one of the greatest of antiquity. He presents a vivid picture of the last scenes of Judea's death struggle, of which he was an eye witness and in part an actual participator. It is carefully and skilfully compiled and as a contemporary record it is invaluable.

It was first written in his mother tongue, Aramaic, and later rewritten in Greek. The work was endorsed by Vespasian, Titus and Agrippa. It may be said that such a man was not of fine enough character to be an impartial historian; but impartial historians are quite a modern institution. All ancient historians took great liberties both with events and numbers, and put speeches of their own composition in the mouths of the leading characters.

In connection with this work we may mention his autobiography, covering chiefly his questionable achievements as commander-in-chief in Galilee in 66. It is his apologia pro vita sua.

Contra Apion.

To his merit, be it further said, he gladly became the advocate of his people in the land of the Gentile, and jealously guarded their reputation. Against the traducer, Apion, an Egyptian grammarian, he launched a work in Israel's defense, "Josephus Against Apion," or "The Great Age of the Jews," in the form of a letter to a friend. It is in two books. In the first he replies to other traducers of the Jewish people. For the bad fashion had come into vogue of inventing absurd slanders against the Jews—a fashion, by the way, that has not yet passed away.

He easily refutes the charges of Manetho that the Jews were expelled from Egypt as lepers. "If lepers why should they have been kept so long as slaves."

Of Apion, the offender, who gives title to the book, he says: His writings show palpable ignorance and malevolent calumny; but as the frivolous part of mankind exceeds the discerning, I find myself under some kind of necessity to expose the 'errors of this man.' He shows how Apion ridicules the Sabbath by misrepresenting its origin.

To the slander that Jews worship a golden ass placed in their holy of holies, he replies that such charge could only have been brought by an Egyptian, for they do worship animals.

He dismisses the preposterous charge that Jews annually sacrifice a Greek, with the information that at the time of Moses, "the Jews knew not the Greeks." How old "the blood accusation" is!

But Josephus finds that the best and most dignified reply to all aspersions on Israel lies in giving an outline of their law and belief. This gives him an opportunity to testify to the faith that is in him still. He writes:

"There never was such a code of laws framed for the common good of mankind as those of Moses—for the advancement of piety, justice, charity, industry, regulation of society, patience, perseverence in well doing, even to the contempt of death itself."

"God is the source of joy and to Him they turn in all woe. This worship of the one God is combined with morals."

"They weekly gather even their servants and children (on the Sabbath), having suspended work to read the Law, that they might know what to do."

He points out the sobriety of the Law, its strict chastity, reverence for parents and elders, duties to the stranger, moderation towards enemies, easement of prisoners, especially women, kindness to animals and vigorous punishment of sin. It regards death, he says, as a blessed means of being transported from this life to a better. Hence Israel's record of martyrdom:

"Such is our reputation that there is hardly a nation in the world that does not conform in some respect to our example."

"How many there are of our captive countrymen at this day, struggling under exquisite torments because they will not renounce their laws nor blaspheme the God of their forefathers."

Like Philo, he regards Judaism as a universal religion that should be accepted by all mankind.

His works are couched in simple and attractive style. Written in Greek, they have been translated into all tongues. They were read much by Christians of the Middle Ages, who regarded Josephus as a second Livy; but till recent years he has been neglected by his own people. But then so was Philo.


Historians:—Justus of Tiberias also wrote a history of the Jewish War; it is now lost.

Defenders:—Among writers in defense and appreciation of the Jews just a little prior to Josephus, were Alexander Polyhistor, Strabo, the geographer, and chiefly Nicolaus of Damascus.

Josephus and Christianity:—Josephus relates fully the story of John the Baptist, but does not mention Jesus of Nazareth! This would seem to indicate that, prior to the coming of Paul, Jesus left but a slight impression on his age. This omission seems to have so disconcerted some members of the Church that one actually inserted a paragraph about Jesus in the History of Josephus. But the clumsy forgery was later discovered.

Theme for discussion:—

Should Josephus be regarded as a traitor?