Josephus: De Bello Judaico; On The War With The Jews

By delightful happenstance, my completion of reading On The Jewish War coincides very nicely with the completion of Matthew 24, which is the latter’s version of Mark 13. Both of these are apocalyptic writings; they talk about a period of enormous tribulation, followed by the coming of the son of man, and the establishment of the kingdom of God. For the most part, the chapters describe the end of human history. Maybe. Like so many other things in the NT and elsewhere, there is a wonderful miasma of ambiguity about what exactly is to happen, leaving many things open to interpretation. And this interpretation has been going on for the past 2,000 years.

Why is the happenstance so fortuitous? De Bello Judaico is the only surviving account of the revolt and war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The latter was complete; the absolute destruction of Jerusalem would not occur until 132, when it was razed to the ground, a polis, a city on the Greek model, was planted there, and the name was changed. However, the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Temple that occurred in 70 CE was total enough. It was a cataclysmic event in Jewish history, but one not quite on the scale of the destruction of the first Temple, which resulted in the Babylonian captivity. That was the event that forged the national identity of the Jews, and saw the revision of any of the existing texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the writing of most of the rest of that book. The destruction in 70 was more dire than the final destruction in 132; the latter merely finished the job, as the Third Punic War removed Carthage from the map, but Carthage had been thoroughly destroyed, and had ceased to matter, at the conclusion of the Second Punic War in 202 BCE. Carthago delenda est.

Note the date: 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple, and the dispersal of the Assembly of Jesus in Jerusalem were the direct causes, I would argue, of Mark deciding to write a gospel. We have discussed Paul’s evidence that the proto-church was run by James, brother of Jesus. There is, IMO, no good reason, no reason with historical validity, to doubt this evidence. There is no reason for Paul to have invented this, and the method in which he conveys the information–in a letter to another assembly–is too casual to be the result of an effort to alter the record. This is not to say that Paul didn’t put his own slant on the events described; of course he did. Rather, it’s to say that the events described actually did happen, albeit perhaps not exactly as Paul tells us. All primary historical documents from the ancient world are like this.

James, the leader of the Jerusalem Assembly, reportedly died in the mid-60s CE. In another work of Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, we are told that James was executed ca 64 CE. There is reason not to take this completely at the word of the author. Unlike Galatians, there is reason to believe that the text of Josephus may have been doctored by later Christian copyists or editors. Regardless, by the mid-60s, most of the generation that had known Jesus personally would not have been young any longer. Even if Jesus were the older brother, there’s no reason James had to be much younger; a series of children a year or two apart was the norm for the time and place. So James would likely have been 60 at the very least, especially if Jesus had been born in the time of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE) as Matthew tells us. Regardless, the historical record of the bulk of the NT gives the impression that the shift in emphasis from being a sect of Judaism to being a separate entity was more or less complete by the mid-60s. The sense is that the Assembly of Jerusalem was largely a moribund institution, and that the torch had been passed, perhaps to Rome. The death of James could easily have been a factor in this transition; the likelihood is that the various assemblies of former pagans–such as, but not limited to–those founded by Paul had shifted the weight of the movement out of Judea and Galilee. Thinking about it, I suspect that the transfer from Jerusalem had happened by the the time Mark wrote, but that Rome would be the eventual centre of the Church may not have become obvious until Luke wrote; and that may very well have been why Luke wrote his gospel, but more particularly Acts.

None of this, however, explains the connection between The Jewish War and Mark 13/Matthew 24. The Penguin edition I read was first published in 1959. In the Introduction, the translator goes out of his way to comment on whether Mk13/Mt24 recorded an actual prophecy, or if it were an after the fact description of what would happen based on what did happen. The translator favors the former; he is sure that it was a genuine prediction, contra what scholars of “the previous generation”–as he puts it–believed. For it has become standard scholarship to accept the predictions of Mk13/Mt24 as after the fact descriptions. I believe that, firmly. Some of that, of course, is the approach taken here: that, in historical writing, miracles and prophecies cannot be taken at face value; the former is a certainty, but the latter can bend because there are times when people predict things that do happen. Jeanne Dixon, the astrologer, made her name and fortune by correctly predicting the assassination of JFK. Whether the stars accurately told her this, or whether it was a lucky guess, or inference, doesn’t matter. She did it.

There are many aspects of standard scholarship that I do not accept. The existence of Q is believed by most people, most scholars, but I certainly don’t accept that. Why do I accept this and not that? It’s largely a matter of the detail involved. The words of Mk13/Mt24 are very specific, and very detailed. They do not sound like a prophecy. And now that I’ve read The Jewish War, I’m even more convinced of this than I was before. The horrors that Josephus describes are very similar to much of the content of the two chapters of the NT in question. In fact, some of the details are so close that I’m toying with a theory that Josephus read Mark. TJW was published in 75, so it’s not out of the question based on chronology. This would require that I posit the chain by which I explain how Josephus got the copy of Mark, and within the few years between the “publication” of Mark and the publication of TJW.

And honestly, just as it is not necessary for Q to exist, there is no reason to require that the similarities between Mark and TJW be based on direct textual dependency. Both Mark and Josephus wrote within a few years of the destruction of the Temple. This was an event of world-renowned proportions, something like the events of 9/11, but increased by several orders of magnitude. And Josephus did not need Mark; he was a direct participant in the events described, first on the side of the Jews, then, after turning traitor, on the side of the Romans. If there is any textual dependency, I would suspect it ran in the other direction: that Mark was aware of Josephus. However, that would push the writing of Mark after 75, and that just seems to be too late. It is possible, however, that Mark was revised after the publication of TJW, but that is creating bodies unnecessarily.

Rather, I suspect that the basic outline of the events of the War were simply very well known in the Eastern Mediterranean–or even beyond–within a very short period. The war lasted 3-4 years; the Jews held out for a good long time, much longer than the Gauls or Buodica. So there had been time enough for the situation to sink in to the consciousness of the Empire as a whole. By the time of the Destruction, knowledge, perhaps lacking in detail, of the war probably extended throughout the Western Empire as well. The point is that there would have been many people aware of the events, and from direct experience. Four legions participated, plus numerous Arab and Syrian auxiliaries, plus slaves, camp-followers, those who sold provisions, and so on; there were easily 10,000, if not 15,000 individuals who had first-hand accounts to tell. The general outline, as a result, was likely to be widely known by many, many people. And Mark could have been one of them. Tradition has him writing in Rome as an associate of Peter, but I doubt Peter made it to Rome, so it seems more likely that Mark was likely writing in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The descriptions of Josephus are horrible. They describe, sometimes in very graphic detail, the horrors of faction and famine that the Jews suffered, and they apparently suffered terribly. There is likely a degree of exaggeration in the descriptions, but even cutting by half would still provide an experience that was extremely horrific. (I can’t stop using variations of “horror” because nothing else seems close to adequate. Conrad put that particular word in Kurtz’ mouth for a reason.) I’ve used this before, but it bears repeating: the descriptions of Mk13/Mt24 truly seem to be blurbs written for the cover of TJW.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the war wasn’t what the Romans did to the Jews. Rather, it was what the Jews did to themselves. While the Romans were outside the walls, there were three factions inside that were fighting it out amongst themselves. Or, rather, there were two bandit groups duking it out between themselves, and the mass of the townspeople were victims of both. Again, if half of what Josephus is even anywhere close to true, the levels of murder and plunder and rapine inflicted on the townspeople were staggering. This is where, I suspect, some of the dire warnings were born: that there would be betrayal, and families set against each other, and lawlessness. These all happened, according to Josephus. Jesus warns of love growing cold; Josephus describes how the effects of hunger within the walls led to families turning on each other for scraps of food, not caring when a loved one died. And this could easily be what is meant by the one standing at the end will be saved; if you were able to weather all these tribulations, and only if, would your life be saved. This is not about eternal salvation in this use of “save”, but of simple physical survival. The verb “to save” in the NT, perhaps more often than not, refers to physical, rather than spiritual or eternal salvation. It’s all been spiritualized over the millennia, but erroneously so IMO.

Another interesting find in TJW is an echo of Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem. When the bandit leader John enters the city, exhorting all to put up resistance to Rome, the older, more sensible men begin to mourn the passing of Jerusalem as if it had already happened. This is an exact correlation to what we are told Jesus did. What this would indicate is that the theme of the lamentation entered popular consciousness to be picked up independently by Mark and by Josephus at different times. We also have the story of Niger, one of the respectable Jewish leaders. When the bandits took control of the city, they began to execute the reputable, the respected, the solid leaders of society. Niger had been more than a competent leader in the war so far, so he was targeted by the bandits. As he was being dragged off to execution, he laid a curse on the city of Jerusalem that included battle and slaughter and famine and disease and, ultimately the fight to the death among the Jews themselves. All of these, of course, happened, as Josephus points out. This is very similar in theme and content to Jesus’ prophecies.

So, in short, reading Josephus has left me more convinced than ever that the warnings of Jesus are descriptions of past events. The similarities are too clear.

Aside from that, there are several other aspects of the book that are worth noting. First and foremost, this is one of the most extreme examples of blaming the victim I have ever encountered. Especially after he changes sides, Josephus twists himself into very complex knots to paint the Jews as the real villains of this affair. In particular, Titus, the son of the new emperor Vespasian who had begun the war as the Roman general, is the model of perfection. Brave, effective, an unstoppable fighter, but above all compassionate, he and the bulk of the Roman army are disgusted by the fighting inside the walls, at the butchery of innocent people by the two groups of bandits, despairing that these bandits will not allow the city to surrender, thereby allowing the Romans to spare the mass of the citizenry. It’s those darn bandits! Compared to this, the way Mark was able to excuse the Romans and blame the Jews for the death of Jesus is the work of an amateur. Josephus was such an effective traitor that he was given an imperial pension and lived out his days in the good graces of the successive emperors.

One thing worth noting is that there is not a single reference to Christians, to Jesus or James, or anything vaguely related to the followers of Jesus. And recall that this was at a time when the Christian community in Rome was large enough, and well-known enough, for Nero to blame them for the fire in 64. It is easy enough to dismiss this; after all, that was not Josephus’ purpose. Such a dismissal, however, neglects to note that Josephus mentions other groups within Judaism; in particular, he goes on for several pages about the Essenes. Of course, he tells us in the later Antiquities, that he was member of this sect for two or three years, so of course it held a special place in his affections.

So yes, it is possible that he ignored the Assembly because it didn’t serve his purpose to do so. It just didn’t come up. But it’s also possible to read this as an indication that the Jerusalem Assembly had indeed drifted into insignificance at this point. If so, then this should, or could indicate that my supposition that the tipping point between Jews and pagans had already arrived by the time of the war. It’s hardly proof, but it doesn’t contradict the notion.

As for the title, it was pointed out in the Introduction that it very much fit in with other such books, especially in Latin. For example, the De Bello Gallico of Julius Caesar. The purpose is to emphasize that the book is to be taken from the Roman, and not the Jewish perspective. IOW, it’s another way Josephus sought to curry favor with, and show his sympathies towards the Romans rather than those pesky Jews.

That being said, I have to say that the Romans do not necessarily come off all that well in some ways. At one point, Josephus goes to great lengths to tell us about the famous discipline of Rome’s army; but, during the final siege, before the city is taken, the Romans fall for a half-dozen ruses (at least; I lost count) perpetrated by the Jews. These are effective in getting a lot of Romans killed or wounded exactly because the Jews lure the Romans into breaking that discipline. One means of capturing a city was to build siege towers that allowed the attackers to overtop the walls. Since they were made of wood, the defenders tried to set them on fire. In one incident, after making these enormous towers, it appears that three Jews are able, on their own, to sally out of the walls with torches in hand and set the towers on fire without any real trouble. It seems hard to credit that the Romans were quite this stupid, but perhaps they were. Jerusalem was a strongly fortified city; it should have been difficult to capture. But this story makes the Romans look more or less incompetent.

The final topic I want to mention is the belief in the soul, or perhaps beliefs about the soul. These come twice. The first is during the discussion of the Essenes. According to Josephus, the Essenes held that, while the body was corruptible and temporary, the soul was immortal. In addition, they believed in the differential treatment of the souls of the good and the souls of the wicked. After death, the souls of the good are rewarded, going either to a place beyond the ocean, or perhaps taking their place among the stars. In contrast, souls of the wicked are consigned to a dark, stormy pit, a place of eternal punishment. Both of these, he explicitly tells us, are the same doctrine as the Greeks. This provenance is reinforced later when Titus exhorts his men into the danger of battle. The brave, he says, will be rewarded with a pleasant afterlife.

The significance of this is to demonstrate two things. First, that the idea of the immortal soul, and by extension, an afterlife, were not of Jewish origin, but pagan, specifically Greek. The second is that the idea of a soul and an afterlife were now fairly well entrenched in the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was becoming, or had become, a common heritage for peoples of many different backgrounds. The Jews, some of them anyway, had assimilated the idea and accepted it as part of their religious beliefs. As such, assuming Jesus taught such a doctrine, this teaching did not originate with Jesus. He may have helped spread it among Jews, but it found particular resonance among pagans. And this may have been one of the major pivot points that separated who converted and who didn’t. Even today, Jews are decidedly ambivalent about the idea of an immortal soul, as I understand their beliefs. Again, as I understand it, they may not deny the immortal soul, but it is not a central tenet in their belief system. This is quite in contrast to Christians, for whom it’s pretty much the starting point.

There are numerous other points in TJW that offer the opportunity for compare & contrast with the NT. The other night at Evensong I heard about Joseph of Arimathea, of how he risked his status, and perhaps his life, by taking down the body of Jesus. Well, Josephus says that Jewish custom was to remove the bodies from the crosses before sundown. So maybe that wasn’t so daring after all? We’ll revisit this at the appropriate point in the narrative,

Here is an interesting tidbit. Per Josephus, the Jews were given leave by the Romans to execute anyone, including Romans, who went too far into the Temple. There were inscriptions–in Greek–warning folk to come no nearer. Could this possibly have been the reason Jesus was executed? Food for thought, anyway.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 7, 2016, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Special topic. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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