Exemplary character: John the Baptist
Joseph son of Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus — surnamed after his patron, the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius — was the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity. Without his work, much of the contemporaneous history of Israel would be floating in a vacuum. Josephus's vignettes concerning Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus's brother, James, are the only pieces of outside evidence relating to first-century New Testament figures. The issue of their authenticity is, therefore, of major importance. However, before tackling it, let me say a few words about the author and his reliability as an historian.
Josephus belonged to the Judaean priestly aristocracy. He lists among his forebears the daughter of the Jewish high priest and king, Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai). Born in 37 CE and educated in Jerusalem, Josephus boasted of precocious expertise in the Law. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he studied the "philosophies" of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as the wisdom of the Jewish hermit Bannus, finally choosing to become a Pharisee. In 64 CE, he sailed to Rome where Poppaea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero, was his benefactress.
He returned to Jerusalem before the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion (66 CE) and like many of his upper-class, land-owning compatriots, he first opposed the war. A prompt U-turn soon followed and, aged 29, Josephus became the officer in command of the revolutionary forces in Galilee. His short military career ended ingloriously in 67 CE, when he was captured by the Romans at Jotapata (Yodfat). Taken before Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces, Josephus predicted that he would become emperor. Two years later, the prophecy came true and Josephus was freed. Vespasian returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge of the war. Josephus was then used as an interpreter and negotiator by Titus in his talks with Jerusalem's Jewish defenders.
Although in the eyes of the revolutionaries he was a traitor, Josephus believed he was serving his compatriots and used his influence with Titus to liberate many Jewish prisoners. He even rescued three crucified acquaintances, one of whom survived. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Josephus followed Titus to Rome, where he was granted citizenship. The financial support he received from Vespasian and his successors, Titus and Domitian, allowed Josephus to lead a leisurely life as a man of letters. He was married four times and his third and fourth wives bore him five sons.
Josephus's works, aimed at glorifying the Jewish people, were primarily addressed to educated Greeks and Romans. The seven books of The Jewish War, covering the period from Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BCE) to the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (74 CE), were drafted in Aramaic and translated by Josephus into Greek with the help of assistants in the late 70s. He tells his readers that both the Emperor Titus and the Jewish king Agrippa II praised the reliability of his history in private correspondence. All his other books were written in Greek.
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