9. Josephus, the King to Come

911640514 Josephus
A romanticized engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works.”  

Josephus was an unusual man for his times. He was a patriot for his nation, his people, and especially his class. But he was also a prolific  writer who wanted the world to remember the good things about his country that was destroyed not by the Romans but at the hand of the Romans because of the misguided “freedom fighters.” He sided with the Romans…and tried to explain himself to his critics by writing a book on what led up to the war with Rome in 65-70 A.D. (Wars of the Jews) He then wrote Antiquities of the Jews to give his people’s history for all those who had lost access to their own destroyed histories in the dispersion of the Jews after the war. He also wrote his own autobiography he simply called “Life.” You would know who he meant…

He was a rich man with a dynamite “pure-blooded” genealogy which he was very proud of. I shared this part of his story in a blog post on Josephus and his Mother…but his genealogy  was such a crucial part of him and of my slowly developing theory of him that I want to show it again here.

Josephus’s Genealogy

Josephus genealogy

Josephus on his Genealogy

The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but hath descended all along from the priests; and as nobility among several people is of a different origin, so with us 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…The Life of Flavius Josephus[1]

Josephus claimed High Priestly blood on his father’s side and Hasmonean royalty on his mother’s side. Oddly, he never names his own mother, though he mentions her several times and records one speech she made. He names his father and his brother but not his royal mother though she was crucial to his genealogy…and sense of entitlement. But when I charted his genealogy, putting it side by side with my chart of the Hasmonean Tower of Mariamne descendants, it revealed a surprise. Josephus left out about six generations—the exact same years of the Hasmonean civil war through the marriage of Mariamne I to Herod, and the fate of her sons. He side-steps all the years that the Hasmonean women and their heirs were defiled by their marriages to Herodians.

What Josephus, I think, was doing with his selective genealogy was showing those with eyes to see that his line stayed pure. They did not intermarry with the descendants of Mariamne the Queen and Herod. There must have been other royal lines going back to the original Hasmonean brothers other than Mariamne and Josephus’ line. The Books of the Maccabees never mention Jonathan’s wife or daughter(s) or any other descendants who left heirs except his brother Simon’s line that became the ruling line. It is assumed that Judas the Maccabee did not have any children, so Jonathan’s line would be the “other” Hasmonean line. Josephus specifically says that “Jonathan was the first of the sons of Asmoneus who was high priest, and was the brother of Simon the high priest also.Life:1

Josephus the Young Prince

Josephus goes on to explain how when he was about sixteen years old he tried out for himself the “three sects”—Sadducee, Pharisee, and Essene. He also spent some time with a hermit-type teacher named…

..Banas who “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.

Which, of course, is how Mark, the earliest gospel, said it:

And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins: and he did eat locusts and wild honey…And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan…(just before he went into the wilderness for 40 days)…Mark 1:6

At the age of nineteen, Josephus chose to join the Pharisees. Some say that at least some of Jesus’ teachings were Pharisaic, even paraphrasing Hillel, a leading Pharisee sage. At age twenty-six Josephus began his public career by being sent on a mission for the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council, to Rome to procure the release of some priests “who ate nothing but figs.” When Josephus returned to Palestine (one year later?) after winning the release of the prisoners, war with Rome was at his doorstep. Galilee was where the legions would first arrive in Palestine and the hope was to stop them there. The Sanhedrin sent Josephus to Galilee as a commander to raise an army when he was about 28 years old. At about thirty years of age, Jesus began to travel in Galilee raising a group of disciples and a large “following.”

Josephus gives a lot of detail about his exploits in Galilee while raising an army and training them, which read a lot like Jesus’ trips around Galilee but without mentioning the word “army” and without having Roman Legions on their way. Nevertheless, both men have similar successes and failures…one in the 30’s A.D. and one in the 60’s A.D. Both men had to feed large crowds of people. Both have a bodyguard named Simon. Both have to make hasty retreats from the people who either love him or hate him—and want to make him king. Both are hailed as “Benefactor and Savior.” Both saw what they were doing as a mission…but also that both saw themselves as special.

Josephus the Prophet

But wonderful it was what a dream I saw that very night; for when I had betaken myself to my bed…it seemed to me, that a certain person stood by me, and said, “O Josephus! leave off to afflict thy soul, and put away all fear; for what now grieves thee will render thee very considerable, and in all respects most happy; for thou shalt get over not only these difficulties, but many others, with great success. However, be not cast down, but remember that thou art to fight with the Romans.” When I had seen this dream, I got up with an intention of going down to the plain. Now, when the whole multitude of Galileans, among whom were the women and children, saw me, they threw themselves down upon their faces, and, with tears in their eyes, besought me not to leave them exposed to their enemies, nor to go away and permit their country to be injured by them; but, when I did not comply with their entreaties, they compelled me to take an oath, that I would stay with them; they also cast abundance of reproaches upon the people of Jerusalem, that they would not let their country enjoy peace.  The Life of Flavius Josephus 42.

First…one has to wonder who that “certain” person was in the dream that spoke to him. But throughout his writings about himself, Josephus has this most wonderful sense of himself. He was raised to be somebody. And when, in the course of the war, as it was bound to happen, he met with disasters and losses, he came up with a reason why God would let such things happen to one such as him. When he was at last besieged in the Galilean town of Jotapata, Josephus and his men abandoned the people in the city—so he could live to fight again—and escaped to caves where eventually the Romans found them and tried to take Josephus alive to send as a trophy to Nero. Nicanor, a Roman friend of Josephus, tried to persuade him to surrender.

For his next speech, Josephus oddly switches to the third person as he recounts his capture in Wars of the Jews:

Now, as Josephus began to hesitate with himself…Nicanor lay hard at Josephus to comply…he called to mind the dreams which he had dreamed in the night-time, whereby God had signified to him beforehand both the future calamities of the Jews, and the events that concerned the Roman emperors. Now Josephus was able to give shrewd conjectures about the interpretations of such dreams as have been ambiguously delivered by God. Moreover, he was not unacquainted with the prophecies contained in the sacred books, as being a priest himself, and of the posterity of priests: and just then was he in an ecstasy and setting before him the tremendous images of the dreams he had lately had, he put up a secret prayer to God, and said—“Since it pleaseth thee, who hast created the Jewish nation, to depress the same, and since all their good fortune is gone over to the Romans; and since thou hast made choice of this soul of mine to foretell what is to come to pass hearafter, I willingly give them my hands, and am content to live. And I protest openly, that I do not go over to the Romans as a deserter of the Jews, but as a minister from thee.”  Wars of the Jews III.VIII.3

His men came at Josephus with their swords, demanding that they all fall on their own weapons and thereby escape capture. They also wanted the privilege of dying with Josephus…so he devised a plan. Still speaking of himself in the third person…

However, in this extreme distress, he was not destitute of his usual sagacity; but trusting himself to the providence of God, he put his life into hazard [in the manner following] – “And now”, said he, since it is resolved among you that you will die, come on, let us commit our mutual deaths to determination by lot.  He whom the lot falls to first, let him be killed by him that hath the second lot, and thus fortune shall make its progress through us all; nor shall any of us perish by his own right hand, for it would be unfair if, when the rest are gone, somebody should repent and save himself…” He who had the first lot laid his neck bare to him that had the next, as supposing the general would die among them immediately; for they thought death, if Josephus might but die with them, was sweeter than life…Wars of the Jews II.VIII.7

I have to think that dying with your commander had to add to a fallen warrior martyr’s likelihood of being resurrected with the Judas the Maccabeus’s Saints. And, as Lady Fortune would have it, Josephus drew one of the last two dies. When it got down to himself and one other man, he persuaded the man that really, suicide was a kind of a sin; that suicides were left unburied and subject to bones being lost to animals. So they lived and surrendered and Nicanor took Josephus to the Roman General Titus who commiserated with him over “the power of fortune, and how quick is the turn of affairs in war…”[2] Josephus then requested a private audience with Vespasian, Titus’ father and commander of the Roman legions sent to take Jewish Palestine. When they were alone Josephus said,

Thou O Vespasian thinkest no more than that thou hast taken Josephus himself captive; but I come to thee as a messenger of greater tidings; for had not I been sent by God to thee, I knew what was the law of the Jews in this case, and how it becomes generals to die. Dost thou send me to Nero? For why?…Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and emperor, thou, and this thy son. Bind me now still faster, and keep me for thyself, for thou, O Caesar, art not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind; and certainly I deserve to be kept in closer custody than I am, in order to be punished, if I rashly affirm any thing of God.  Wars of the Jews III.VIII.9

What Josephus did was proclaim that Vespasian would be named Emperor on Jewish soil. He claimed that Vespasian was the King to Come![3] It saved Josephus’ life.  Vespasian sort of believed Josephus though he kept him in chains for a while close by to see if his prophecy came true. Josephus’ own people did not know that he still lived at first. When news of the fate of Jotapata and the suicide of its defenders reached Jerusalem, at first most refused to believe the defeat as there were no eye-witnesses. As the days wore on and no news of Josephus came, Jerusalem was filled with extreme distress. Stories from surrounding areas trickled in saying that Josephus 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

I took the thirty days of mourning Josephus describes for himself as an example of his conceit because he stated that King Herod only had seven days of mourning…until I just now looked it up. Association for Scriptural Knowledge (ASKelm.com/star) has a great article on Astronomy and the Death of King Herod that actually discusses the burial and mourning practices of the time. Noting that Josephus gave King Herod only seven days, they describe how all the actions done to honor the king, like the army marching and how many paid mourners were there, etc,  that King Herod had also had 30 days of  mourning; not nearly enough time to pull off all the events in seven days….so that was an error or a subtle but deliberate contrast to show how revered he, himself, was. The 30-day mourning period is called “Sheloshim” and was employed as an official public honoring of a dignitary or someone like a king with national prestige.

Josephus the Traitor

Before long the truth of what had really happened at Jotapata came to light, and when it was learned that Josephus was in Roman hands and treated by the commanding officers with a respect no prisoner could expect…The city was “full of indignation at him” and lamentations turned into cries of “traitor.” This is where Josephus and the freedom fighters part company. Having read the handwriting on the wall, he saw that they would lose the war, and so made it God’s plan for him to go to the Romans, as Paul went to the Gentiles before him.

So…it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that Josephus  did not consider himself to be an ordinary one-week mourning kind of citizen. Neither do the multitudes see him that way. Nor does Josephus’ mother…

Josephus’ Mother’s Lament

While Josephus is held in the Roman camp outside the city walls, his mother and father are inside being held prisoner by the militias in the city. Josephus gives his mother, not his father, a speech to make.

…Josephus, as he was going round the city, had his head wounded by a stone that was thrown at him; upon which he fell down as giddy. Upon which…the Jews made a sally…and…Caesar…sent men to protect him immediately; and…Josephus was taken up, though he heard little of what was done. So the seditious supposed they had now slain that man whom they were the most desirous of killing and made thereupon a great noise, in way of rejoicing. This accident was told in the city; and the multitude that remained became very disconsolate at the news, as being persuaded that he was really dead…

but when Josephus’ mother heard in prison that her son was dead, she said to those that watched about her, That she had always (known)…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; 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…This sight of Josephus encouraged the people greatly, and brought a great consternation upon the seditious…Wars of the Jews V.XIII.3

What Josephus was telling us, for those with eyes to see, was that he had a good enough genealogy to be the next King of the Jews and/or High Priest, maybe both together as his Hasmonean ancestors had instigated. The Romans treat Josephus as one who could be given the kingdom, if there were to be a kingdom left when the dust settled. But as the war grinds on and the siege begins in earnest, the militias, factions, sects, innovators, and robbers, each with a strong man at the helm, had fled into Jerusalem seeking the safety of the Temple. Surely, the Temple, if not the city walls, would be the line in the sand that God himself would draw. Once inside, the groups vied with each other for turf. The thing they had in common was a hatred of high priests and their own kings and rich women, whom they saw as traitors and collaborators. One by one the high priests were picked off by Sicarii with their hidden knives in a crowd in the city and in the Temple.

Josephus’ Lament

Just before the end, Josephus made a last speech. No matter what conceits and airs can be laid at his feet, he tried his best to save the people and the city and the Temple. He saw what was coming, I think, as Herod did just before the Roman legions broke through the walls of Jerusalem back when he became king in 37 B.C.[4] He wanted the people to surrender and the city and Temple be saved so he would not be “king of a desert.” He tried again to break through the Jihadi/Holy War mentality of those inside:

…Wherefore I cannot but suppose that God is fled out of his sanctuary, and stands on the side of those against whom you fight…and do you persuade yourselves that God will abide with you in your iniquities, who sees all secret things…O hard-hearted wretches as you are! cast away all your arms, and take pity on your country already going to ruin; return from your wicked ways, and have regard to the excellency of that city which you are going to betray…Who could bear to be the first to set that temple on fire!…

O insensible creatures, and more stupid than are the stones themselves!…have pity upon your families, and set before every one of 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…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

Josephus’ mother and her handmaids and his father and his own wife were killed either by the rebels or the Romans. After the siege was broken, after months of famine and horrors too hard to relate, the Romans broke through the walls and stormed the city, killing all they saw.

Roman Josephus

Josephus was taken to Rome with Titus and Vespasian and given a house and a wife(s)

Josephus Roman
A bust said to be of a younger Romanized Josephus.

and money to live on by them. His biggest complaint after the war was about his new wives. I think he was trying to “marry up” to get a wife that would be good for him, if, against all odds…his dream came true.

I was kept with much care, by means of the great respect that Vespasian shewed me. Moreover, at his command, I married a virgin, who was from among the captives of that country (ha…a virgin captive!) yet did she not live with me long, but was divorced, upon my being freed from my bonds, and my going to Alexandria. However, I married another wife at Alexandria…Nay, after that, when those that envied my good fortune did frequently bring accusations against me, by God’s providence I escaped them all. I also received from Vespasian no small quantity of land, as a free gift, in Judea; about which time I divorced my wife also, as not pleased with her behavior, though not until she had been the mother of three children…After this, I married a wife who had lived at Crete, but a Jewess by birth: a woman she was of eminent parents, and such as were the most illustrious in all the country, and whose character was beyond that of most other women, as her future life did demonstrate…Life: 76



[1] The Life of Flavius Josephus or “Vita (Life), which is less an autobiography than an apology for Josephus’ conduct in Galilee during the revolt. It was written to defend himself against the charges of his enemy Justus of Tiberias, who claimed that Josephus was responsible for the revolt. www.britannica.com/biography/Flavius-Josephus. “Life” is the first book in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus.

[2] Wars of the Jews II.VIII.8

[3] Perhaps indicating that it wasn’t exclusively a Davidic king that was expected. Josephus would have mentioned his own Davidic blood.

[4] Antiquities of the Jews XIV.XVI.3. Herod even promised to pay out of his own money if the soldiers would forgo their right to plunder and would not destroy everything…so soldiers and even the commander “went away full of money.”

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