Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Complete Works of Josephus translated by William Whiston

 It took me three years but I have finally finished Whiston’s translation of the complete works of Josephus. It is probably overly ambitious to try to review this 1,147 page translation in one post, but I will share the highlights of specific sections.

The first work is The Life of Flavius Josephus which was written by Josephus himself. In this book Josephus informs us that he is a Levite; which is to say that his is a descendant of the Aaronic order which were the priests. He was born in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar, also known as Caligula. This was the crazy Caesar who initiated the Caesar cult, made his horse a god, and also one of the crueler ones, maybe even crueler than Nero, if he had been allowed to live long enough. (He was murdered by his own body guard, that’s how horrible this particular Caesar was.)

In Josephus’ autobiography we are informed of how destructive the internal fighting for power was among different Jewish factions that ultimately led to Rome stepping in and the resulting fall of Jerusalem. He also lets us know what kind of warrior he was. According to him, he was a very fierce warrior. We learn of all the intrigues and deceptions that transpired back and forth between different Jewish leaders and how his own life was at peril by opposing leaders and their armies and how he successfully fought them off.

To get an idea of the brutality of the times, I’ll mention one example where another Jewish leader attempted to overthrow Josephus by spreading lies and slander about him. He then set an army against him but Josephus fought back with his own army and captured the leader. In his “mercy” he allowed the man to cut off his own right hand in exchange for his life. After hanging the man’s hand around his neck, he let him go as an example to the others. Gee. What a guy.

As I read of all the wars and battles included in this book I gather this was a common practice. This was an era when there must have been a lot of mutilated men walking on the earth.

It was enlightening to read  about the vying for leadership between the priests, Sadduccess, Pharisees and Zealots. Each one was determined to rule over Jerusalem and none of them seemed to care what sort of chaos, misery or suffering they caused to do it. I had not previously understood how this internal division had led to Jerusalem’s destruction.

What all of them seemed to forget is that Rome considered them a province and Vespasian and his general Titus eventually arrived with troops and caused even greater slaughter than the Jews were already experiencing at their own hands, if that were possible. The blood bath described is unimaginable. One particularly harrowing account describes the cannibalism that peoples in the city resorted to because they were being starved out. There’s one particularly hideous account but I don’t have the heart to write about it.

The second book is titled The Antiquities of the Jews. This is comprised of twenty books that starts with the Creation, works its way through the Patriarchs, the Kings of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem prophesied by Jeremiah and Isaiah and the ensuing Babylonian captivity. It ends with the Jews departure out of Babylon, return to their homeland, rebuilding their sacred city and Roman rule.

What I found exciting about these books were their faithful account and affirmation of the historical account of the Bible. Josephus’ history of the Jews is not a word for word repetition of the Old Testament but a reliable secondary source and substantiates the historical veracity of the Biblical account and its place as a valid historical document.

Also enlightening is the historical account of what happened in the four hundred year gap between the Old and the New Testaments. Here we learn about Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Alexander the Great, and the Herods. One has to read Josephus’ account of Herod Antipas to truly appreciate what a paranoid, murderous monster he was. Nobody was safe around him. Not his wives, his children, no one. He believed everyone was plotting against him.

Of course, they all were. It’s interesting to see the world in which despots live. Everyone is constantly fearful of his own life while seeking to snuff out the next person’s in order to rise in power. It didn’t matter who that person was, either. If it was a son, or mother or father. People willingly threw their own relatives to the wolves if it meant furthering their own position. Were people ever really happy back then?

The final book is The War of the Jews. This is a more in-depth description (seven books) of the fall of Jerusalem. When one reads of the bloodshed and destruction of the time, Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 takes on a whole new understanding. The mass slaughter of humans defies description. I don’t know how there can be any Jews left after this whole sale destruction of humans. Thousands upon thousands were killed. Lakes were filled with bodies. Yet the Jews wouldn’t surrender. The remnant that was left was dispersed and would not return to their own country until two thousand years later.

The last section is essays by the translator, William Whiston, who contends that Josephus became a Christian and was one of the first Bishops in the church. He cites many early sources to support this. I don’t know if that is true or not but the only thing for sure is a direct quote where Josephus mentions Jesus Christ:

Now there was about this time, one Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles also. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him for he appeared to them alive again the third day as the divine prophet had foretold them and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him: and still the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18 pg. 379 and Appendix, dissertation 1 The Testimonies of Josephus concerning Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and James the Just, pg. 979.)

The Complete Works of Josephus is not a quick, easy read. But it is a highly rewarding one and, if you’re willing to invest some time in reading a little a day, you’ll find your own historical insight and appreciation for the Judeo-Christian culture and tradition all the richer.

There are a number of translations available. I recommend William Whiston’s because it is extensively annotated and has the added bonus of Appendices that include seven dissertations by Whiston as well as ancient Jewish weights and measurements, several maps, and a list of Ancient testimonies and records cited by Josephus.

Kindle: $1.99


  1. What a great work to read. This is something that would very much appeal to me. Someday I really must start this. Your suggestion about reading it a little bit at a time sounds like a good one.

    As you mention there is so much here to discuss. One thing that struck me, is that it sounds like people were so casual about the brutality that was going on at the time.

    1. Brian: I hope you will read it. I guess people didn't question the brutality because it was normal to them. They didn't know anything else. Probably it's not too different from certain parts of our world today.

  2. Hi Sharon, this was all news to me. I have heard "according to Josephus" spoken a lot concerning the Bible and wondered who he was.
    Was he alive at the time of Christ? I'm not sure when Caligua was emperor.
    All of the bloodshed and power struggle between the tribes of Israel surprised me. I wondered if Josephus had a great imagination. Thanks for posting this review.

    1. Hi Phyllis: Josephus was born shortly after Christ's resurrection. Caligula became emperor around 37AD. Josephus was an adult and an eye witness to the fall of Jerusalem.
      While he was accused by fellow Jews of giving a biased account that portrayed the Romans favorably (he became an advisor to Emperor Vespasian. This is the Emperor who sent General Titus to fight back the Jewish insurrection.
      Josephus' account of history is corroborated by many other sources, such as Tacitus. If you look at the back of Whiston's translation you will see a list of all the sources that Josephus used.
      I'm with you. I was listening yesterday to a sermon about why the Pharisees wanted Jesus crucified: to avoid an insurrection and Roman discipline. Then the same group causes it to happen not forty years later.

  3. Interesting. If I'm not mistaken, Josephus wrote the earliest account of the historical Jesus. Am I right?

    1. The earliest accounts of Jesus were written by the writers of the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all of whom were dead before 70 AD. We know that Josephus wrote his history after 70 AD because he includes the Roman invasion and fall of Jerusalem.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.