Josephus and His Works
Harold W. Attridge
Never may I live to become so abject a captive as to abjure my race or to
forget the traditions of my forefathers (War 6:107)
Flavius Josephus, or Joseph ben Matthias, is certainly the single most important source for the history of the Jewish people during the first century C.E. His lifetime spanned the turbulent years leading up to the revolt of the Jews against Rome, the period of the war itself, and the years immediately following, when Judaism was in the process of reconstituting itself on a new basis. His literary remains consist of three major works, the Jewish War in seven books; the Jewish Antiquities in twenty books; and the apologetic tract, Against Apion, in two books. He also composed an autobiographical work, the Life, as an appendix to the Antiquities.
Each of these works relied in one way or another on earlier sources which Josephus recast to serve several apologetic purposes. Any use of his writings must take account of these various tendencies and they will constitute the primary focus of this survey.
At the beginning and end of his autobiographical work and in scattered references throughout his writings, Josephus provides us with the basic facts about his life. The bulk of his autobiography, as well as a substantial portion of the War, is devoted to the brief period of time, from the fall of 66 to the summer of 67, when he served as a leader of the Jewish revolutionary forces in Galilee.
Josephus was born of a distinguished priestly family in Jerusalem (Life 2; War 1:3) in the first year of the reign of the emperor Gaius, 37-38 C.E. (Life 5). He also claimed to be descended through his mother from the Hasmoneans (Life 2), a claim on which the War, with its relatively proHerodian stance, is silent. Josephus portrays his youth as that of a child prodigy, who ‘made great progress in my education, gaining a reputation for an excellent memory and understanding’ (Life 8), to such an extent that, at the age of fourteen, he was consulted by the chief priests and leading men of the city on particular points of the laws (Life 9). Although there is, no doubt, exaggeration in this flattering portrait, it probably