Flavius Josephus

Undoubtedly the most vital sources for an analysis of the social life of Palestine in the first century CE would include the works of Josephus. Since he was both a participant-historian and officer of the Galilean military, Josephus was particularly well informed about the events and people of present concern.  His three historical works are especially helpful for the present analysis: The Judaean War (c. 75), Jewish Antiquities (c. 94), and The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 99).  Though Josephus was intimately familiar with the material of interest, it has become increasingly clear that his testimonies cannot be taken at face-value as historical facts.  Josephus regularly exhibits the biases one would expect of his social location: an aristocratic Jewish priest from Galilee whose patrons are now Roman elites.  These investments have far-reaching implications in his histories.[1]  To take only a few examples, Josephus is interested in validating the activities of his social class during the Judaean War and so locates its causes elsewhere whenever possible; consequently, Jewish radicals and the equestrian governors of Judaea receive the brunt of his blame. Insofar as Josephus often uses the Judaean auxiliaries as a literary device to provide the governors an opportunity to reveal their incompetence, one must be cautious about accepting the historian’s account of their misdeeds’s significance.

More frustratingly for the present analysis, our knowledge of the Judaean auxiliaries has been compromised because they lacked esteem in Josephus’s eyes. As with other aristocratic historians, Josephus does not provide the formal names of auxiliary cohorts and usually avoids reference to auxiliaries any time legionaries were present, imagining them to be a less-legitimate component of the Roman army.[2]  It is also worth emphasizing that Josephus imagines Palestine and the Jews to be exceptional with respect to the Roman Empire more broadly, a characterization that is increasingly dubious.  But the historical limitations of Josephus’s corpus are ever more appreciated thanks to the increased interest in Josephus qua author and not simply as the alternate testimony to early Christian history that he had long been perceived to be. A large number of scholarly writings thus document how Josephus’s writings function as a sort of “court history,” with its attendant apology, aristocratic conceptions of causality, and at times sycophancy.

[1] Mason, Steve. 2003. Josephus and the New Testament. 2nd ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson. is an immensely helpful condensation of the status quaestionis on Josephus’s historical works.  Cf. the commentaries in the Brill Josephus Project.

[2] Alston, Richard. 1995. Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History. London: Routledge, pp. 28-29. For a full study of various writers in this respect, see (Saddington, Denis B. 1982. The Development of the Roman Auxiliary Forces from Caesar to Vespasian (49 B.C.–A.D. 79). Harare: University of Zimbabwe Press.); on Josephus in particular, refer to pages 48-51 in the Saddington volume. Tacitus is particularly guilty of this prejudice.

See Mason, “Josephus as Authority for First-Century Judea” (2009), 25-36, for the difficulties in dealing with the historicity of the role of Caesarea in the events leading up to the revolt.