The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but hath descended all along from the priests…to be of the sacerdotal dignity, is an indication of the splendour of the family…I am of the chief family of that first (priestly) course also; nay, farther, by my mother, I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus, from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of a king, for a long time together...Life of Flavius Josephus
Josephus was born to be somebody and he knew it. His full name was Yosef Ben Matityahu or Joseph son of Matthias. He emphasizes his high priestly credentials from his father and yet…he also has a Hasmonean bloodline though his mother, though he will not name his own mother in his autobiography. He claims descent from Jonathan, brother of Judas the Hammer/Maccabeus, the “first brother to be a high priest/ruler.”
But Josephus was very selective about how he presented his genealogy. Just reading his narrative, you don’t see it. But when you chart it out beside the ruling line of Hasmoneans coming down from another brother Simon, something really pops out. Josephus left out about six generation—coincidentally, the years that involved the civil war among the Hasmoneans and the marriage of Mariamne I to Herod—neatly side-stepping all the years when the royal women of the defeated Hasmoneans were made to marry Herodian/Arabian relatives of King Herod. Josephus is claiming that his own mother was of a purer line of Hasmoneans…unsullied by Herod…and therefore, so was he.
Josephus son of an Unnamed Mother
Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family as I have found it described in the public records, and so bid adieu to those who calumniate me [as of a lower origin.]. Life of Flavius Josephus
But…not entirely…he hopes you will not notice that he does not give his mother’s lineage: by my mother, I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus…he does not actually name HER or her father or mother. She is as mysterious as Mary in the New Testament…no “Mary daughter of…” Josephus’ mother, however, as a royal daughter was considered pure enough to be married to one of the “high priests” in a time when the daughters of King Agrippa I or their statues were being put on top of brothels and abused. Making one wonder, how many other Hasmonean virgins, squirreled away in towers to keep them pure, were there? It also makes one suspicious that Josephus’ mother might have been named “ Mariamne.” Josephus consistently tried to correct the record that Mariamne the Queen was unchaste…the reason given for executing her. And, while he mentions Mariamne III, the virgin orphan, he does not mention her again after the trial over her virginity and abuse before the age of puberty and her betrothal to Antipater son of Herod. She dropped out of the court records just as she appeared in the gospel stories. Josephus’ mother would have been married to Matthias by ca 33-35 A.D., the same timeframe usually given for Jesus’ crucifixion. She would have personally known Mariamne III and Herodias and especially Queen Helena taking her Nazarite vow…or known of them growing up in Jerusalem.
So, if you were a pure-blooded Hasmonean princess married into a High Priestly family and gave birth to a son, what could you expect? Here, amazingly, is one story told by both Josephus about himself and by Luke about Jesus. First Luke:
And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days…the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it….And it came to pass that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors…And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers…(Luke 2:41-50)
Here is Josephus’ story about himself:
I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law…The Life of Flavius Josephus 2.
I’m not qualified to know who was copying whom or if it was such a popular theme that both picked it up. Or perhaps they both had the same source.
The Wonderous Child
Found among the Dead Sea Scrolls was this prophecy called, The Wondrous Child. It is a fragment, as are most of the scrolls:[i]
(After tw)o years he will know this from that…When he reaches puberty, he will be like…and will not be like (the average) (m)an who knows nothing until he has mastered the (usual) couple of books. He will then acquire shrewdness and common-sense. (Even) professional seers (will foreg)ather to come to him on (their) knees. (For all their long)gevity and age, he will (surpass) both his father and his forebears. He will be possessed of counsel and shrewdness (and) will know what men keep secret. Moreover, his wisdom will go (forth) to all the peoples. He will know the secrets of all the living, and all their schemes against him will be brought to an end. The turpitude (or, defection) of all the living will be great, but it is his plans (that will prevail), inasmuch as he is the chosen of God. His birth and the (very) breath which he draws (have been ordained by One) whose plans endure for ever…
This child prodigy story is the only childhood story Josephus told on himself and Luke’s version is the only gospel story to take place during Jesus’ childhood. There is one more similarity…
(W)hen I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both night and day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years….Life I
Sounds very similar to: And John…wore… a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6) Jesus entered his public life after he “studied” with John the Baptist out in the wilderness. Josephus was about nineteen years old when he returned to the city and went on to study with the “three sects; Sadducee, Pharisee, and Essen.” He eventually settled on being a Pharisee. Perhaps it was a custom for young princes to study with the different sects as part of their training. Oddly, though, he went from religious training to political career. His first assignment was being sent off to Rome to petition Caesar…
But when I was in the twenty-sixth year of my age, it happened that I took a voyage to Rome…At the time when Felix was procurator of Judea, there were certain priests of my acquaintance, and very excellent persons they were, whom on a small and trifling occasion he had put into bonds, and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Caesar. These I was desirous to procure deliverance for…especially because I was informed…(that they) supported themselves with figs and nuts. Accordingly I came to Rome (harrowing story of shipwreck at sea) by God’s providence…I became acquainted with Aliturius, an actor of plays, and much beloved by Nero, but a Jew by birth; and through his interest became known to Poppea, Caesar’s wife; and took care, as soon as possible, to entreat her to procure that the priests might be set at liberty; and when, besides this favour, I had obtained man presents from Poppea, I returned home again. Life 3.
When Josephus finally made it back to Judea, he was given the task of going to Galilee and raising an army to fight Rome….there are varying opinion whether he did it at the Galileans behest or the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. There are many similarities between Josephus’ exploits as Commander of the Jewish army as he rode around Galilee as the war with Rome begins in earnest…and the gospel stories of Jesus in Galilee. I highly recommend reading it. Both Jesus and Josephus, for instance, were prevailed upon by the multitudes to declare themselves king and both were hailed as Benefactor and even Savior.
But here, I want to continue with Josephus’ sense of himself as influenced by his royal mother. At one point in the early war, Josephus and his forces were captured at Jotapata in Galilee and word leaked back to Jerusalem that he was slain. The city was full of lamenting for every house and family had fallen relatives to mourn…but…
…all mourned for Josephus: insomuch that the lamentation did not cease in the city before the thirtieth day; and a great many hired mourners, with their pipes, who should begin the melancholy ditties for them. Wars of the Jews III.IX.5
The “thirty days of mourning” is easy to see as an example of Josephus’ conceit but it will soon be known that Josephus was alive and captured and being treated as a prince and/or favored hostage, not a prisoner. He was brought to the Roman camp outside the walls of Jerusalem as they lay siege to the city to try to persuade those inside to surrender. He is seen as a traitor by the “innovators” and freedom fighters inside the walls who holler epithets down at him. Undeterred, he rode around outside the walls trying to make the rebels see the light and surrender, even as his mother and father are being held captive inside the city walls by those same rebels. One day, a stone flung at him hit its mark and knocked him out. Roman soldiers immediately carried him back to camp and the “seditious” thought they had killed him and rejoiced…as his mother lamented…
…when Josephus’ mother heard in prison that her son was dead, she said to those that watched about her, “That she had always been of the opinion, since the siege of Jotapata (that he would be slain,) and she should never enjoy him alive any more.” She also made great lamentation privately to the maid-servants that were about her, and said, “That this was all the advantage she had of bringing so extraordinary a person as this son into the world; (This, then is the fruit that I reap of my blessed childbearing… Gaayla Cornfeld translation[ii]) that she should not be able even to bury that son of hers, by whom she expected to have been buried herself.”
However, this false report did not put his mother to pain, nor afford merriment to the robbers long; for Josephus soon recovered of his wound, and came out, and cried out aloud. That it would not be long ere they should be punished for this wound they had given him. He also made a fresh exhortation to the people to come out, upon the security that would be given them. This sight of Josephus encouraged the people greatly, and brought a great consternation upon the seditious… Wars of the Jews V.XIII.3
It is the militias inside the walls that will not let the people out even though they are all beginning to starve. Just before the Romans break through the walls, Josephus made a last speech outside the city wall. He tried again to break through the Jihadi mentality of those inside:
O insensible creatures, and more stupid than are the stones themselves! And if you cannot look at these things with discerning eyes, yet, however, have pity upon your families, and set before your eyes your children, and wives, and parents, who will be gradually consumed either by famine or by war. I am sensible that this danger will extend to my mother, and wife, and to that family of mine who have been by no means ignoble, and indeed to one that hath been very eminent in old time; and perhaps you may imagine that it is on their account only that I give you this advice: if that be all, kill them; nay, take my own blood as a reward, if it may but procure your preservation; for I am ready to die in case you will but return to a sound mind after my death.” Wars of the Jews V.IX.4
While Josephus genuinely loved the city, he also had an ulterior motive; I think, he also saw himself as the next ruler…just as Herod said to Sosius, the Roman Commander laying siege to Jerusalem before he was first made king in 37 B.C.…knowing full well that the soldiers would flood through the breach in the walls killing everyone and torching everything in sight…Herod feared that the Romans would empty the city both of money and men, and leave him king of a desert..[iii] Josephus, too, would have wanted to restrain the destruction for the next king or high priest to rebuild, hopefully himself.
See “Pages” number 7 for further discussion of Josephus and the Romans.
[i] (From The Dead Sea Scriptures edited by Theodor H. Gaster}
[ii] Josephus, The Jewish War, Gaalya Cornfeld, General Editor, Zondervan Publishing , 1982
[iii] Antiquities XIV.XVI.3. quoted in Chapter VI.