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Prosopographic Note on Josephus Flavius

Josephus Flavius’ political perspicacity led him to conclude that the Jewish religion developed better under Pax Romana than under complete independence in Judea. He was not the only one to have had such a conviction. Yochanan ben Zakkai, followed by Yehoshuah Ben Hannaniah also thought so and in this regard were closer to the Prophet Jeremiah or the authors of the Acts.

By Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
University of Tronoto
March 2012

I propose to develop the prosopographic note on Josephus Flavius from my book published in 2001, Les Laics en Palestine d’Auguste a Hadrien: etude prosopographique,1 by analyzing more closely his personal life and ambitions. There are grounds to believe that he married four times rather than three and that he had planned to become a Hasmonean type of leader in Judea.

Son of Matthias, Josephus received his tria nomina, Titus Flavius Josephus, as well as Roman citizenship from the Flavian Roman Emperors. The literature on his account is rather abundant.2 Most of what we know about him comes from his own writings, except for very few ancient authors’ passing references to him. After all how often did ancient authors refer to each other in writing at that time: very rarely, indeed. Among the ancient authors mentioning Josephus are Antonius Julianus in Minucius Felix, Octavius, 33:2-4, who considers him as a Roman author, and Suetonius, Divus Vespasianus 5:6 in Lives of the Caesars, who quotes him as Vespasian’s prisoner of noble descent, to whom he predicted his rise to power.3 Appian, Roman History, F 17 and Cassius Dio, Historia Romana 66, mention as well Josephus’ prediction to Vespasian. Porphyry, De Abstinentia, 4, 11, mentions that Josephus described three philosophical schools in Palestine.

Josephus Flavius enjoyed a good reputation in Antiquity and in the medieval Church, which almost made of him a 5th Gospel. As for the Jews, they disavowed him.

The Rabbinic literature does not mention Josephus. The Talmud ignores Philo of Alexandria as well and some leaders of the Revolt against the Romans such as Simon Bar Giora’, Ioannes of Gischala, and Eleazaros son of Simon. Could it be because the purpose of the Talmud, a compilation of rabbinic discussions, is neither historical nor philosophical? But then why does the Talmud mention Herod the Great, even though without praising him, as well as Titus, two enemies of the Jews? Does this mean that the Talmud did not consider Josephus as a traitor? This question remains open.

Nevertheless, some want to read in certain passages of the Talmud, indirect, non-mention allusions to Josephus.4 Josephus Flavius is himself mute on great figures such as Hillel and Yochanan Ben Zakkai’. The latter, along with Shim`on Ben Gamali’el must have been among his Pharisees teachers. Josephus does not mention nascent Christianity in his writings even though he was at turn initiated to all of the other schools of thought of his time.

Whether he should be considered a traitor is a question that historians of all times ask about Josephus. In the 19th century, they did see him as a traitor and modern historians were for the most part hostile to him. T. Rajak’s5 depiction of Josephus as a man in conflict with the Jewish society of his time provoked D. Schwartz’s and other scholars’ criticism. The latter are inclined to believe that Josephus had no choice but to be under the dictation of the Roman Emperors and wrote his books for the requirements of Roman history and society.

Josephus must have been at least a protégé of the Flavian Emperors. Moreover, he must have been well acquainted with the noble Cretan Jewish community in Rome through his last wife. Among his honors, he was made a landlord in absentia in Judea by Titus6 and by Vespasian.7 Josephus was even given a pension by Vespasian,8 and Domitian exempted his property in Judea from taxation.9 We do not know what happened to his properties in Judea since there is no sign that he ever went back to his native land.

Born in Jerusalem in 37-38, he was, although according to his own writings only, of sacerdotal aristocratic descent. He was a priest of the 24th line of sacrifiers on his father’s side and Hasmonean on his mother’s side. He became the first Jewish historian that we know of and the best chronicler of the 66-73 Jewish War against the Romans. We owe him the only complete description of the war of 66-73. 73 is the year of the fall of Masada, and he is the only source for that event. He became Titus’ propagandist in Rome.

Although he does not claim it specifically, Josephus could have been a perfect candidate for the restoration of a Hasmonean type of leadership: a Great-Priest-King. Moreover he tells us that he named his eldest son Hyrcanos10 and that he was the only one of his three children from his Alexandrian wife to survive. Furthermore, he never mentioned any daughters. Did he have any or were they not worth mentioning for him? It seems that he mentions his sons only as future heirs of his intended dynasty: after all, he did have five sons like the five Hasmonean kings. He had three sons from his second or rather third wife (we shall expand upon this issue later), an Alexandrian woman: the eldest of these was named Hyrcanos, and the second Ioustos, and the third was Agrippas. He then divorced this wife and married a Cretan woman of noble Jewish descent, as his fourth wife, and she gave him two sons: Ioustos the elder and Simonides, surnamed Agrippas.11 Apparently he named these latter after his dead sons from the previous wife: a custom common at the time. For instance in the Tomb of the Goliath family excavated at Jericho the name Yeho`ezer keeps on recurring because of infantile death of the persons bearing this name.12

Josephus mentions a woman whom he left behind in Jerusalem during the war.13 One may deduce from this information that Josephus was married when he took command in Galilee. He must have gotten married while he was eighteen years old in Jerusalem. Even though it is not mentioned anywhere else in Josephus’ writings this is crucial for the understanding of Josephus’ private life and ambitions. This woman in Jerusalem could also have been only his betrothed, or just a women he befriended and whom he was particularly fond of, though most likely, she was his first wife.

From early youth, with one of his brothers, Matthias, Josephus was brought up in the love of letters. We know nothing about the beginning of his life until age 14. He tells us that he had a phenomenal memory and was very perspicacious. When he was barely 14, the Great Priests and affluent people of Jerusalem would call upon him for questions of law.14 At age 16, he joined successively the three different schools of philosophy in Palestine: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. But really, which one did he approach first since he was of Sadducean descent? It is hard to say, and it seems that he did not choose any particular one at last.

He also tells us that he spent three years in the desert with someone called Bannous,15 a nazir (ascetic) living on natural products of the earth and, for reasons of purity, bathing in cold water. Josephus ended his relationship with Bannous because the latter had joined a nationalist movement, the Zealots probably, who had settled in Masada. This encounter with Bannous is quite questionable because Josephus was too young at this time for this type of experience. It is doubtful that he was given that much freedom by his parents. Why did Josephus at times appear to have chosen the Pharisees? His familial origin should have pushed him towards the Sadducees. Opportunism and ambition again as parts of Josephus’ prominent features figures one of the answers to this question. The Pharisees had much popular political influence. Josephus seems to have chosen their obedience for the same reasons the Hasmoneans sovereigns did.

He accepted the honor to travel to Nero; he, as a Sadducee, then accepted the honor of commanding as a general against the Romans in Galilee, agreeing with the Pharisees that the war was urgent as self-defense. He then turned to the Romans again rather than committing suicide.

Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to identify all priests of that time as Sadducees. Some, like Josephus’ family, it seems, as well as someone called Ioazros, of priestly descent in Jerusalem,16 could have been of Pharisaic color for their culture and ideology. Moreover, Josephus’ search for the best philosophy was typical of Greco-Roman culture. For example Justin Martyr,17 disappointed by the Peripatetic, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies, tells us how he finally converted to Christianity. Galen and Lucian also went on search for a philosophy to suit their taste.

Then again Josephus does not provide us with any information about his personal life from the age of 19, when apparently he came back to Jerusalem from the desert, at approximately the age of 28. At this point of his life, he traveled for the first time abroad in an embassy, likely to be of Sadducean obedience, sent to Rome in the year 66 during the Revolt. Josephus was accompanying a delegation of sacrifiers. They reached Puteoles where Josephus met a Jewish comedian named Aliturus whom Nero liked very much. Josephus was introduced to Poppaea. It is from this judeophile Empress that he obtained gain de cause for the sacrifiers.18

As for the rebels, after they managed to push away the Syrian governor Cestius Gallus, they rallied to their side the pro-Romans and then they recruited extra generals, including some priests, to direct the war. Among them were Ananos, the Great Priest, John the Essene, and Josephus. The latter was in charge of upper and lower Galilee.19 Upon his return from Rome, Josephus tried to dissuade the insurgents, reminding them of their inferiority vis-a-vis the Romans.20 Then Josephus, together with the chief of the priests and as a leader of the Pharisees, decided that the war was urgent if only for self-defense. He sent his two colleagues to Jerusalem, gathered some weapons, and reinforced some towns.21 Then he befriended the affluent people of Galilee. He forced the inhabitants into military service and subjugated Tiberias and Tarichea. He failed at Sepphoris which had been fortified by his forces and which was abandoned by his troops to Vespasian. He organized the resistance in Jotapata besieged by Vespasian. He had to absorb the insults of certain Galilean Jews like Ioannes of Gischala who had sent a delegation to Jerusalem asking for his replacement. Once the city was taken, Josephus took refuge in a cavern and decided to surrender to the Romans rather than taking part in a collective suicide recommended by his companions. Since then his fate was very much linked to the Romans.22 Jewish soldiers wanted him killed. In Jerusalem, the first reaction was to grieve for him and later, as it was understood that he surrendered, he became to be cursed as a traitor. Josephus went back to Jerusalem and encouraged the inhabitants to surrender during the siege of Titus, but without success. His first wife must have died in the siege of Jerusalem. Later on, the Romans freed him.23 Then he followed Vespasian to Alexandria where the latter was proclaimed Emperor and where Josephus married for the third time.

During his captivity, he tells us24 that he was forced by Vespasian to marry a prisoner, but since he was a priest, Jewish Law forbade him from marrying any women but a virgin. A prisoner was assumed to have been raped. Therefore as soon as he was freed, he repudiated this wife.

How many times did Josephus take a woman as a wife? How many of them were Jewish?

First of all one has to note that Josephus states25 that this captive woman from Caesarea Maritima was in fact a virgin and moreover, that she left him once he was freed from captivity. We know that some pagans did take part in the insurrection in Galilee where they were numerous. So the one he married under Vespasian’s command whom we know to have been a prisoner must have been a pagan. Josephus himself states: “...Caesarea-on-sea, one of the largest cities of Judea with a population consisting chiefly of Greeks....26” His lineage would not have permitted him to marry a non-Jew. Moreover, he was already about 30 years old; therefore, most probably, according to the normal age of marriage for men at the time, already married and to a Jewish woman from Jerusalem.27 Moreover, since he was of Pharisaic obedience at the time of the war, in light of a largely accepted ideal of monogamy among this group, Josephus could not have been happy to be bigamous. Josephus was probably hoping that his first wife was still alive in Jerusalem, while he assumed she was no longer; then he decided to marry the Alexandrian women after his freedom from captivity in 69 BC.

From all these above mentioned reasons, Josephus informs us that he felt forced by Vespasian to marry this prisoner from Caesarea. Josephus was in fact already married to a Jerusalem women and could no longer respect the principle of ideal monogamy28 observed by at least the aristocrats and sovereigns at the time and especially by the Hasmonean sovereigns.

Therefore indeed the most important underlying question one should ask when reading Josephus’ Vita 414 is why Vespasian forced him to marry this Caesarian prisoner? Was it usual for a Roman conqueror to force a prisoner, privileged or not, to marry a prisoner? Did Vespasian have a secret goal in doing so, such as erasing Josephus’ priestly descent? Did this Roman Emperor, knowing that a cohen, a priest, could only marry a Jewish virgin, force Josephus to take this prisoner as a second wife in order to make sure that Josephus could no longer assume a position of leadership among the Judeans? Or even more importantly, did Vespasian do so in order to impede him from claiming a Hasmonean type of leadership, a Great-Priest monogamous Kingship? And who else other than the future Emperor would have better known of Josephus’ ambitions?

Therefore Josephus’ ambition appears to have been to become a Hasmonean type of sovereign for his people.

Let us dwell a moment on the principle of monogamy that seems to have been the wise ideal at a time of war in Roman Palestine, for at least financial reasons.29 There are numerous examples of polygamy in the Old Testament and then again in the Middle Ages since Rabbi Gershom’s herem, ban, prohibited the Ashkenazi Jews from bigamy, proving that it did exist at some point, even though probably exceptionally, among the Jews of Roman Palestine. As proof, the rock cut tombs inscriptions and archeological material, including bones gathered, showing husbands and wives buried together in the same coffins or ossuaries but always as one wife with one husband. It is accepted that the ossuaries were widely used by Pharisees. As well, most Rabbis of the Talmud were monogamous.

What one may conclude about Josephus Flavius’s personality is that he was eager to learn, he was hungry for power and prestige, and he was an opportunist. Ignoring his lineage, he did not hesitate to adhere at times to Pharisaism. Even after the success of his expedition to the Roman Emperor, he did not hesitate to take command against Rome in Galilee for finally surrendering to his enemies. After the war, he traveled with Titus back to Rome, and there he stayed at the palace of Vespasian. He also received an allowance from the Emperors and provoked the jealousy of the Jews throughout the Empire but he remained, nonetheless, Rome’s protégé. He was, as most influential Jews of the period, both conformist vis-a-vis Jewish laws30 and cosmopolitan for general knowledge. The Josephus who ended up in Rome had the intellectual baggage of a Jerusalemite, was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic; however, he did not know very well how to interpret the Old Testament Scriptures. He knew some Greek. Josephus came from a Palestine Hellenized ever since the days of Alexander the Great but which had made efforts to preserve Judaism with its political, social, and educational institutions. He had been a politician, then soldier, and finally a writer. Had he succeeded to restore the Hasmonean rule in Palestine, following some of the Hasmonean sovereigns, he would not have hesitated to set that which had spread all over the Empire; among them were priests, landlords, dynasts, etc.

In Antiquity, it was important that the historians were eyewitnesses of the events they described. As such were Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Salustus, etc. Josephus wrote his Books while in Rome. These Books are the main sources for the rise of the Flavian Emperors as well as the History of Palestine in the first two centuries of the common era. Above all, much of the information given in his books have been authenticated by recent archaeology. There is no indication of the date of his death.

In his writings, he was at times biased and concerned about presenting himself and his role in the events under the most favorable light. In The Jewish War, the Roman power is described as overwhelming and Josephus praises the power of Rome while criticizing the Zealots’ nationalism which he sees as responsible for the ultimate catastrophe. This was the first book he wrote in 71 and which was edited in 75-79. Then in a largely apologetic tone he wrote the Jewish Antiquities, published in 93-94; this is a history of the Jewish people from their origin until the beginning of the Jewish War of 66. Books 12 to 22 of the Jewish Antiquities constitute a development of the two first books of the Jewish War. The Life, his autobiography, was also published in 93-94. There he mostly discusses the accusations he had to face some twenty years after the Jewish War concerning his surrender. Therefore the Life is not really an autobiography. One may wonder whether it was Josephus himself who decided to title this writing Vita, The Life. It seems rather, that the Life is an appendix to his Jewish Antiquities and a second version of the third book of his Jewish War. Eusebius quotes Vita calling it Antiquities.31 This would mean that in the 3rd and 4th century Vita did not have a proper title. Josephus himself, at the end of the Jewish Antiquities, expresses his wish to talk about his life and career in order to respond to an attack against his family. Finally the Contra Apionem, where he responds to the greatest antisemitic author of Alexandria, Apion, was released in 96. In this work, Josephus’ goal is to counter-attack Apion mostly by proving Judaism’s great antiquity.

Originally written in Aramaic and Greek, Josephus’ works were later translated into Latin, Syriac, Slavic, then English, French, Italian, Modern Hebrew, and Japanese. The linguistic imperfections in Greek reveal Josephus’ Jewish nature. His style is tragic and pathetic. However, Josephus was not the worst of the Hellenizing historians who had emigrated to Rome and wrote about Roman politics and the military history of the contemporary sovereigns. Among them were Polybius, Dionysos of Halicarnasses, Appian, Arrian, Cassius Dio, etc. According to H. St. J. Thackeray,32 Josephus’ works were written by many different hands. This statement is based on the fact that Josephus himself mentions, in Contra Apionem, 1, 50, that he used assistants for the Greek language in writing the Jewish War, but not for his other works which were written twenty years after he had been immersed in the Hellenized environment in Rome. Moreover, Josephus’ borrowings of Thucydides and Sophocles’ expressions were common practice among first- century authors. Therefore, it is natural that Josephus wanted to try different styles in his writings. Among his opponents was Ioustos of Tiberias, another Jewish historian, a contemporary of Josephus, also implicated in the Jewish War against the Romans, and whose writings were not published.

Josephus Flavius’ political perspicacity led him to conclude that the Jewish religion developed better under Pax Romana than under complete independence in Judea. He was not the only one to have had such a conviction. Yochanan ben Zakkai, followed by Yehoshuah Ben Hannaniah also thought so and in this regard were closer to the Prophet Jeremiah or the authors of the Acts.

In conclusion there are no doubts that Josephus is a controversial figure of Second Temple Jewish history. Nevertheless, there are grounds to believe that Josephus had four wives rather than three and that he had planned to become a leader of Hasmonean type in Judea. He could have been a Great-Priest King, a Hasmonean on his mother’s side and a priest on his father’s. He named his eldest son Hyrcanos, the name of two Hasmonean sovereigns in Judea. This son Hyrcanos was the only one to survive. Josephus never mentions daughters because even if he had any they would not have been included in his intended Hasmonean-type of dynasty that was to start with himself as a sovereign. He stated that he was forced by Vespasian to marry a prisoner because a prisoner was not a virgin. Vespasian knowing that a cohen, priest in Hebrew, could only marry a Jewish virgin, forced Josephus to marry a pagan prisoner in order to impede him from claiming a Hasmonean type of leadership. Josephus was already married since age at marriage was around 18, and he was made a prisoner in his early thirties; there was an ideal of monogamy among priests, Pharisees, and Hasmonean sovereigns.

Josephus’ first wife was a Jewess from Jerusalem. The second one was a pagan prisoner from Caesarea. The third was probably a pagan from Alexandria; he would have mentioned otherwise like he mentioned that his fourth wife was Jewish. He married the Alexandrian woman after his first wife most probably had died in the siege of Jerusalem and after he had repudiated his second wife. He eventually divorced his third wife and married for the fourth time, in Rome, with a noble Jewess of Cretan origin. Again we see through the above the ideal of monogamy since Josephus insists every time on the fact that he separates from the previous wife before he marries the next.

It is obvious that Josephus had a vision. He was disappointed by the Herodian type of leadership. He depicts Herod the great and the Herodian sovereigns in rather negative terms. However Josephus was not very popular among the Judeans of that time. Therefore he sought the help of the Romans in order to establish sooner or later a Hasmonean type of government for which he would have been the leader. And as a cohen and Hasmonean, he had to take a Jewish wife of noble descent, like his last Jewish Cretan wife, the only one whom he did not repudiate and talks about with great pride.


1 Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, Les laics en Palestine d’Auguste a Hadrien: etude prosopographique, Paris, H. Champion, 2001, pp. 94-100.

2 Few authors of Antiquity had called for such a bibliography. H. Schreckenberg, Bibliographie zu Flavius Josephus, Leiden, 1968, attempted already to draw a complete list of works on him.

3 B.J. 3, 400-401.

4 L.H. Feldman, “Flavius Josephus Revisited: the Man, his writings and his Significance,” in ANRW, II, 21, 2, 1984, p. 779-780.

5 T. Rajak, Josephus, London, 1983.

6 Vita 422.

7 Vita 425.

8 Vita 423.

9 Vita 429.

10 Ioannes Hyrcanos I, 135-104 and Hyrcanos II, 67-63, both Hasmonean sovereigns in Judaea.

11 Vita 426-427.

12 R Hachlili and P. Smith, “The Genealogy of the Goliath Family,” BASOR, 235, 1979, pp. 67-70.

13 B.J., 5, 419.

14 See Vita 9.

15 Vita 10, 11; Ant. 18, 11.

16 Vita, 197.

17 Dialogue with Tryphon, 8.

18 Vita 16 says that Josephus Flavius was the ambassador of a group of prisoner priests traveling to Rome to ask the Emperor’s favor.

19 B.J., 2, 562-565.

20 Vita, 17-19.

21 B.J., 2, 569-576.

22 B.J., 2, 577-584, 614, 646; 3, 60-63, 111, 129, 131, 135-140, 141-339, 340-408, 410, 434-439, 464; 4, 9, 56.

23 B.J., 4, 623-629; 5, 114, 256-257, 261, 325.

24 Vita, 414-415.

25 Ibidem.

26 B.J., 3, 409.

27 The Mishnah Avot, 5, 21, sets the age of marriage at 18. The funerary inscriptions as well as the archeological material found in the rock cut tomb of Jericho lead us to think that Yeho`zer, son of ‘El`azar Goliath, was a grandfather of 10 if not 14 at the age of 35 when he died in 10 CE. See note number 633, p. 167 in Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, Les laics en Palestine d’Auguste a Hadrien : etude prosopographique.

28 See A. Schremer, “How much Jewish Polygyny in Roman Palestine,” in Proceedings of the AAJR, Vol. LXIII, 1997-2001, pp. 1-42.

29 There is no mention otherwise neither in written contemporary sources nor in archeological material of the period. As a matter of fact, the funerary inscriptions and bones found in ossuaries of early Roman Palestine, indicating that husband and wife were sometimes buried together are another evidence of monogamy at the time of Josephus. Examples: ‘El`azar and Shappirah, Hananyah and Mariah, in Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, Les laics en Palestine d’Auguste a Hadrien : etude prosopographique, notes number 167, p.62; 238, p.76; 387, p. 117 and 527, p. 148.

30 See the “Halakhah in Light of Epigraphy,” JAJ Sep. 3, 2011.

31 Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica, 3, 10.

32 H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus, the Man and the Historian, New York, 1929. This author composed a dictionary of the vocabulary and the style of Josephus.

Comments (4)

Great article Claude. Thank you. I studied with Louis Feldman back in the 1980s at Yeshiva University. What an amazing scholar and our seminar was on Josephus. He was working on his book at that time. This side of Josephus--that he thought of himself as a visionary, one destined, even a "prophet," is really important and too often neglected. I am sure you know his use of Daniel 9 and the 70 weeks prophecy at the end of Wars? It is one of the most amazing texts I have ever come across in showing his mindset. It is the passage about an "oracle that about this time" a deliverer would come, which he applies to Vespasian of course.
#1 - James D. Tabor - 04/01/2012 - 08:07

James, I do share your respect for Louis Feldman, a great scholar with an amazing sense of humour. He once said "Academics are like lawyers except that we are honest....." Anyway, I hope I was able at least by way of this article, to emphasize the importance of the prosopography methodology for revealing some evidence of people's ambition that would otherwise been left in the dark
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#2 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 04/01/2012 - 18:36

I have read the link you have provided but I have failed to see any connection to interpreting holy ghost as representing Domitian. I don't want to bother but your book is the best book I have ever read. So much so that I am dedicated in spreading the word but in doing so I have to have good understanding and solid arguments that support each of the thesis. So if I am unable to understand why should Holy Ghost be interpreted as Dominitan I will not be able to use this assumption. I have started including parts of your theory on my web site. Following links explain correlations in stories about fishermen and Gadara in great detail by connecting phrases from both texts:I was looking forward to include interpretation of holy ghost as titus/dove but if this is not your opinion I will have to put it under my own theories rather then part of your opinion what I was hoping for since it feels to further strengthen your assumption of Jesus acting like Titus.Also it is a bit confusing that your answers are not positioned directly below the questions because this way it is difficult to follow which answer answers which question.
#3 - Steffen - 04/22/2012 - 14:33

I am afraid that there is a misunderstanding of my thesis developped in the article above, on your part. So please I would appreciate if you do not wrongly quote my work. Also, I do not know which book of mine you are referring to.
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#4 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 04/23/2012 - 10:00

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