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  • Ward Sanford

Josephus: Was he a traitor or a hero?



Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived in both Jerusalem and Rome in the first century CE and wrote extensively on the history of the Jewish people and the First Jewish Revolt. He was raised in an upper-class family whose father likely had connections with the Sanhedrin, and whose mother claimed Hasmonean royal lineage. His assignment to be the military general in charge of the defense of Galilee resulted in his captured there by the Romans in 67 CE. As a prisoner he decided to help persuade the Jews to surrender Jerusalem and save the city and Herod’s Temple from certain destruction. But he failed to persuade the defenders with speeches from the city walls during the siege, and thus in the end he was perceived as aiding and abetting the enemy. It did not help his reputation that he adopted the conquering family’s name as part of his own and lived at their paid expense in Rome for many years afterward. So in what way might he even remotely be considered a hero? If not for his writings (rivaling the Bible in number of words), much of the details of the history of the Jewish people in Judea during that era would have been lost to history. He gave the Jews five hundred years of their history in writing, filling in where the Hebrew scriptures leave off. Despite this important contribution, his perception as a traitor has led to his writings being forbidden to be read or studied by Jews for centuries.

When I travelled around Jerusalem last year, visiting ancient sites, I could not help but notice plaques with Josephus being quoted supporting the existence of whichever ancient excavation was in front of me. He gave extensive descriptions of Herod’s Temple and surrounding buildings, but as his reported dimensions do not always line up with observed or perceived ones, they are often claimed to be exaggerated or the result of poor memory. As a result, I find he is quoted as an authority when it’s convenient yet dismissed as biased when it’s not convenient. In the case of Herod’s Temple enclosure, his description of a 400-cubit-wide square contrasts with that of 500 cubits given by the Talmud. I understand that most Jews accept the latter number of their esteemed rabbis as more sacred and believable. This is why the larger dimension has been adopted in most models of Herod’s Temple seen today. But I cannot help thinking that Josephus was an eyewitness, and the Talmud was written several generations after the Temple was destroyed. Even more curious is the fact that although the current large rectangular Temple Mount is more than twice the size of the recorded square Temple enclosure, its dimensions are not mentioned at all in any ancient texts. In spite of this absence, I understand how it must be hard for an archaeologist to stare at today’s massive walls in front of them and not think that Josephus somehow got his numbers wrong. After all, seeing is believing. I think, however, there is a completely logical explanation for this discrepancy--one that was laid out with compelling evidence by an exceptional Josephus scholar in the 19th century. Those details, however, will have to be the subject for future posts.

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