Flavius Josephus: Child Prodigy turned Prima Donna?
Updated: Apr 22
Flavius Josephus is one of the most controversial persons in Jewish history. His critics will say he had an inflated opinion of himself, borne out in his writings. One of his books gives clues to his background, and thus perhaps insights into his character. Josephus wrote a short book entitled “The Life of Flavius Josephus”. This would appear from the title to be an autobiography, but the work is nearly all about his time leading the defense of Galilee in the year 67. Despite this, the beginning two sections do deal with his heritage and his youth. I will discuss these two subjects here to see if they might explain the confident (or overconfident) nature of his writings, which in turn gave ammunition to his critics.
In the first page of his autobiography, Josephus lays out his claim first to royal descent, and then to the priesthood. He states his reason for this is to dismiss those critics who would claim he was of inferior birth, and thus imply he didn’t have the stature to know and write about Jewish history. The class division in Jewish society is in clear view here, and belonging to the upper class is something Josephus clearly claims. He states “that for us (Jews) the priestly lineage is an indication of the splendor of a family”.
Josephus writes that by his mother he was of royal blood, with her family being descended from the Hasmonean kingly line. No details are offered. Then he makes a detailed description of priestly descent by first saying his grandfather’s father was Simon Psellus (great-great-great grandfather in our terminology). This Simon was known to have been a priest of the highest order (1 of 24) of Jehoiarib, who lived in the time of the Judean ruler John Hyrcanus who reigned 134-104 BC. This Simon was also known to have nine sons, one of them being Mathias Ephlias. To this Mathias was born a son Mathias Curtis, and then a grandson named Joseph, and then a great-grandson named Mathias born in the year 6 CE. This was Josephus’s father, who would have been Mathias ben Yosef. Josephus was in turn Yosef ben Mathias, with his first name being his grandfather’s. By this genealogy Josephus has laid out his claim to be a direct male descendent from a high-standing priest of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
After birth to a clearly upper-class family, Josephus is treated to a well-financed education, as were most of the boys born to that class. Here he shows no modesty concerning his own skill levels. He states “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 of the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came to me then together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law”. It should be pointed out Josephus was not alone in this type of attention, as it was not an uncommon practice then for the religious leaders to question talented youth, thinking they might have insights that their older, more overly trained minds might have missed.
Finally, Josephus tells us that at the age of sixteen he made plans to thoroughly investigate the teachings of the main three religious sects at the time—The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. He soon though discovered an ascetic Essene named “Banus” who lived in the wilderness. He lived with and imitated this hermit for three years before returning to the city. Upon return he began to follow the practices of the Pharisees.
We can imagine that in addition to the Mosaic Law, Josephus would have been taught history and geography. In addition, he also would have been taught Greek and Latin, and so would have been well prepared for his trip abroad to Rome for the few years beginning in 63 CE. With such an upbringing and then spending some years in Rome, one can see why he would have been primed to relating with Roman leaders and finding them not as evil as the working Jewish class would have seen them. One can also see how the working class would have mistrusted such a person of privileged birth who found more in common conversing with Romans than with the majority of his countrymen. It is no wonder that he was quickly suspected of having gone over to the other side, and after the calamities that followed, thought to be an outright traitor to his race. Of course, Josephus saw things from a much different point of view. To him he was trying to save Jerusalem and his people from a terrible dilemma they had gotten themselves into going to war with the Roman Empire. He of course failed in that mission, leaving himself being viewed not as a hero, but a goat—a scapegoat as it turns out—upon which many sins could be attributed. In his writings he tried to defend himself, but the die had been cast, and a lack of humility only solidified opinions against him through the ages.