An Overview on the Life of Josephus

An overview on the life of Josephus
John Rocco Roberto

Flavius Josephus was born Joseph ben Mattathias in the city of Jerusalem around A.D. 37, the same year the Roman Emperor Tiberius died.  His father Matthias ben Joseph was a descendant of Hasmonean, or Maccaabean kings and priests.  It was therefore only natural that at age 16 Josephus embarked on a spiritual search spending time with several religious orders including the Pharisees.  At age 19 he returned to his home in Jerusalem aligning himself with the Pharisees.  It was around this time (A.D. 54), that Sicarii revolutionist began to focus their attention on the Roman occupation.  But instead of attacking Roman officials outright, the Sicarii focused their attacks on their own people, as Josephus himself writes, “against those that were willing to submit to the Romans…[treating] them in all respect as if they had been their enemies.” (Josephus.Concerning Masada and Those Who Kept It…Chapter 8, page 1).  Killing the high Priest Jonathan, the Sicarii would set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the Great Rebellion or the Jewish War.  In A.D. 63, when several Jewish priests were held by the Emperor Nero, Josephus, now 26, traveled as an emissary to Rome to negotiate their release.  It is also around this same time that the Sicarii began a series of raids against Roman power.  Hostage taking became a common practice for the Sicarii, and the Jewish War begins outright in the summer of A.D. 65.

Although he believed this cause to be hopeless, Josephus accepted the appointment as Governor and commander of the revolutionary forces in Galilee, trusted with the defense of the area.  Instead of building up the garrison in Galilee however, Josephus spent most of his time controlling internal factions within the Jewish community.   He was in charge of the defenses for the city of Jotapata.  But when the city fell to the forces of the Roman General Vespasian, Josephus and 40 of his men hid in a secret cave located beneath the city.  After three days the Romans discovered their hiding place and ordered their surrender.  Guaranteeing the lives of all who gave in, the men, refusing to give up, preferred death to capitulation to Rome.  Drawing lots, they preceded to kill each other.  Only Josephus survived.  Brought before Vespasian, Josephus presented himself as a prophet, asserting that Vespasian was destined to become Emperor of Rome.  When this prophecy came true, Josephus was rewarded handsomely.  While acting as an assistant to Vespasian’s son, Titus, he was unable to persuade the defenders of Jerusalem to surrender the city, and thus he became a witness to its destruction in A.D. 70.  After this, Josephus continued to reside within the Flavian court, living in a villa given to him by Vespasian.

Josephus is known to have penned at least four major works.  His most famous, the history of the Jewish War, written around A.D. 78, is the only source scholars have depicting the events of that struggle, including the events at Masada.  Unfortunately his account seems overly one sided, favoring the Romans and allowing his history to flatter Vespasian.  In addition it seems to act as a warning to other provinces against the folly of opposing Rome.  His most ambitious piece, the rewriting of the first books of the Bible translated into Greek, Jewish Antiquities, was published around A.D. 93.  Between A.D. 95 – 100 two further works are published.  Against Apion an attack on the Egyptian historian Apion and a defense of Jewish history, and The Life of Josephus, an autobiography.

For the most part Josephus was considered a traitor to his own people, and the validity of his “histories” has come under question.  His lack-luster involvement with the building up of the garrison at Galilee may have more to do with his belief that the revolt was pointless and less to do with “controlling internal factions within the Jewish community.”  His account of the Siege of Jotapata, where he suggested to his men that suicide was a sin and that it would be better to draw lots and kill each other (the first killing whoever drew the second lot and so on), may have never actually taken place, as it is suspiciously close to the Masada story.  At the very least Josephus is accused of arranging the outcome of the drawings.  “It has been suggested” historian Mark Biggs writes, “that Josephus slyly counted the lots.” (Biggs, Mark W. Military History Magazine: Forty Days at Jotapata.)   There are also questions regarding his description on the fall of Gamala.  Josephus claims that he recorded the account based on the eyewitness testimony of the two only survivors of the siege, the daughters of Philip.  According to his account, once the city’s walls were breached the 9,000 inhabitants chose suicide rather than capture, throwing themselves from the high cliffs on which the city was built.  Yet there is very little actual evidence for this, and while archeological evidenced clearly shows that a battle did take place, historians believe that the deaths took place at the hands of the Roman army.



  • Biggs, Mark W. Military History Magazine: Forty Days at Jotapata. Primedia History Group. April 1999.
  • Mysteries of the Bible: The Last Revolt. The History Channel. A&E Entertainment. February 1997.
  • The Flavius Josephus Home Page
  • The Online Jewish Encyclopedia <>

Essay © 2005 John Rocco Roberto/Visagraoph Films International.