[to see the truth considering Josephus' relation to Christianity, go here Was Josephus a Christian: His connections to Christianity and here: Did Josephus know Paul]
Josephus is an enigmatic figure, and even in his day, he was viewed as controversial and multidimensional. Describing Josephus as “an historian” would be much like describing Thomas Jefferson as “a farmer”. While it is true, it hardly does justice to incredible scope of his exploits.
I originally approached Josephus with an eye towards understanding his religious positions, but in order to understand those, I found myself having to get deeper and deeper into his life story. The effort proved confusing and difficult. Rather than just throw away all the effort, I figured I should preserve it in its own post.
Difficulties in understanding his life
Looking back on it now, I conclude that understanding Josephus’ autobiography is difficult not just because of the “thick” character of his narrative, although that does pose a huge obstacle. By thick, I mean, full of names and side discussions, jumping around from place to place and person to person to deal with whatever issues are at hand.
But even beyond these confusing aspects, Josephus’ life is hard to get ahold of because he inserts copius layers of personal apologetics into his narrative. His autobiography was in fact written for an apologetic purpose, to refute the charge that he was responsible for the rebellion against Rome. Thus, throughout his narrative, we are confronted with character evaluations and statements of personal motivations that can cloud the story.
Even beyond those problems, we encounter the fundamental issue, which is ascertaining which side Josephus was on, who he was working for, and who he was working against. Untangling this knot is the ultimate test of our understanding. At times, when grappling with this issue, I thought the best description was “Josephus against the World”, expressing the idea that, overall, Josephus seems to be mainly concerned with his own advancement and power, allied with no one, battling with everyone.
However, after a great deal of study and analysis, a clear pattern emerged. Summarizing my conclusions about Josephus, I would say the most accurate epitaph he could be given would be: “Josephus, rogue high priest, and Roman agent”
Timeline of key events
In the following summary, I give in parentheses the section number where the information can be sourced in his Autobiography (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/autobiog.htm).
Josephus’ entry into the Jewish-Roman war begins in his late 20’s, around the year 66. He is from an aristocratic family, having lineage from both high priests and kings (1). He is living in the temple in Jerusalem and is closely connected to the high priesthood and the chief of the Pharisees (5). He is himself a member of the sect of the Pharisees (2).
At that time, Jerusalem rebelled against Roman authority, meeting the Roman governor Gessius Florus with violence (6). Florus would force his way into Jerusalem and initiate a harsh crackdown, attempting to exact the tribute payment (Antiq 20.11.1).
At that time, the king of the Jewish nation, King Agrippa, remained loyal to Rome, as did the ruler of Syria, Cestius Gallus. The northern territory of the Jewish nation, known as Galilee, was also not part of the rebellion. The principle cites of Galilee were Sephhoris and Tiberias, and they both remained loyal to King Agrippa and Rome (8).
Josephus, himself a priest, is sent into Galilee by the Jerusalem high priest faction, with two other priests, Joazar and Judas (7), to take matters into control, ruling as a three-part triumvirate (12). They are instructed to demolish the blasphemous statue in the temple in Tiberias. The building is set afire, and Josephus recovers the plunder (12).
The triumvirate votes to authorize John son of Levi of Gischala to rebel against Rome, seizing the Roman tribute for funds, and to rule Galilee (13). The two other priestly members of the triumvirate go back to Jerusalem, but Josephus stays behind and initiates military action in Galilee himself (14).
As military leader, Josephus fortifies towns throughout Galilee, conquering Sephhoris and Tiberias, and attacking Syria with some success as well.
However, John son of Levi of Gischala, along with Justus son of Pistis, attempts to lead a revolt in Tiberias (17) from which Josephus is forced to flee (18). Josephus, however, returns and defeats the plot, retaking control of Tiberias (20).
Sephhoris also attempts to defy Josephus. He puts down the immediate plot against him (22), but they regain their independence and reassert their loyalty to Rome (25).
John son of Levi of Gischala continues to wrestle with Josephus for control of Galilee. The cities of Gabara (under Simon’s leadership) and Tiberias join in loyalty to John of Gischala, although Sephhoris remains loyal to King Agrippa and Rome (25).
Josephus is then betrayed by his own men, who believe he will betray them to the Romans (27), but he escapes death by promising to build up the walls of Tarichee and Tiberias (29).
A faction in Tiberias attempts to call for King Agrippa to liberate their city (32), but Josephus defeats the plot and reasserts control of the city (34).
John son of Levi of Gischala continues to wrestle with Josephus for control of Galilee, this time reaching out to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem group tells Josephus to stand down and submit to John of Gischala. This Jerusalem group was, in fact, the same group of high priest that originally sent Josephus up to Galilee, and included Simon son of Gamaliel, Ananus, Jesus son of Gamal, Artanus, Jonathan, Ananias, Joazar, and Simon (38).
John of Gischala then makes preparation for war against Josephus, getting reinforcements from the three principle cities of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Gabara (40).
Josephus actually wants to flee the scene and hide with his father, but his Galilean followers won't let him go (41), and he is additionally conforted by a prophetic dream ensuring his own success (42).
Josephus leads the Galilean forces in a battle against the Syrian forces of Cestius Gallus, defending Galilean territory (43).
The villages of Galilee, including the largest, Japha, reject John of Gischala in favor of Josephus (45). Sephhoris, still loyal to the king, also rejected John. The commoners of Galilee rally to Josephus in a large army (47) and Josephus confirms his approval in their eyes, and they continue to reject John of Gischala (48-52).
The high priest group, led by Jonathan, goes to Tiberias, expecting Tiberias to join them (53). They accuse Josephus of not protecting the country against the Romans (55). Josephus counters that the leaders of the Jerusalem group should also martial up and lead armies into the field against the Romans, and his plan is approved by the populous.
Ananias then calls for a religious fast, while secretly calling for John of Gischala to come and trap Josephus in the city (56). Josephus barely escaped (59).
A pro-Josephus faction from Jerusalem then arrives to confirm Josephus as ruler of Galilee and condemn the actions of the high priest group (60). Two high priests, Jonathan and Ananias, return to Jerusalem, but two, Simon and Joazar, stay (61).
The city of Tiberias prepares for war and calls for reinforcements from John of Gischala (62). Josephus offers to split government of Galilee with the other two priests, Simon and Joazar (63), according to the plan of the original triumvirate, I would note. Josephus, however, captures Simon, and re-conquers Tiberias (63). Josephus prevents any plundering of Tiberias, and sends all four high priests back to Jerusalem (64). Josephus also neutralizes John of Gischala’s influence (66).
Josephus then leads an attack on Sephhoris, who had apparently requested the help of Cestius Gallus rule of Syria (67). The attack is successful, but Josephus helps prevent the plunder of Sepphoris.
Josephus then has a couple last battles with Sepphoris and the king's forces, led by Sylla (71-2), before Vespasian arrived with the Roman forces (74). Josephus surrenders alive after two battles with the Romans, defying his own troops who wanted everyone to commit suicide rather than surrender.
After helping the Romans conquer Jerusalem, he then becomes a favorite of the Roman emperors, allowed to free all his friends and family from Roman subjugation, as well as being given Roman citizenship, an apartment in the Emperor’s palace, tax-free land in Judea, and an annual pension.
It can hardly be doubted, given the lavish rewards and privileges he received after his surrender in Galilee and assistance conquering Jerusalem, that Josephus was a Roman double agent. An analysis of his actions prior to the war would confirm this conclusion.
As for his supposed status as rebel leader against Rome, we can easily see through that ruse. In fact, the high priest establishment empowered John of Gischala to lead the rebellion in Galilee. However, instead of cooperating with that plan, Josephus himself jumped into a leadership role in Galilee and stymied John’s attempts.
Strategically, Josephus’ efforts as leader of the Galileans were nothing more than delaying actions. He never actually did anything with his command, beyond stifling the plans of John and the Jerusalem rebellion faction. Additionally, he did everything he could to prevent bloodshed and plundering. Hardly the actions of a motivated rebel leader.
He did in fact claim to be against a rebellion from the very start. Early in his "rebel leader" career, his own men turned on him because they suspected he was going to betray them to the Romans. Late in his "rebel leader" career, the rebel faction from Jerusalem accused him of doing nothing against the Romans. All of these admissions and accusations are perfectly in line with what we would expect if he was working for the Romans. After all, where did he get all the money to create this Galilean field army?
Keep in mind, a few years before the war started, Josephus tells us that he had become friends with the imperial household in Rome, earning favors from Poppea, the wife of Nero (3). It is apparent that he made his Roman contacts at that time, acting as a Roman agent among the high priests in Jerusalem afterward.
His status as a rebel leader is also undermined by the close lifelong association he established with King Agrippa (65). Josephus even named his third and final son Agrippa (76). Needless to say, these are hardly the actions of a man who was on Agrippa's bad side.
There is even a hint that King Agrippa and Josephus were working together during the war. As the king's forces entered Galilee just ahead of the Romans, Josephus did little more than skirmish with them. He even laid an excellent ambush upon the king's men, and forced them to retreat, but failed to do much damage because he supposedly fell of his horse, then withdrew with his army (72).
For his part, King Agrippa's men then laid an ambush for Josephus, and routed them at first, but retired instead of pressing the victory (73).
There is also that odd sequence wherein Justus of Tiberias (supposedly Josephus' long-time opponent) was ordered by Vespasian to be put to death. But King Agrippa disobeyed the order, secretly keeping Justus alive but hidden (74). This is the same Justus whom Josephus previously had under his control in prison, but released to freedom (35).
In short, we have ample evidence that even during the war, King Agrippa's and Josephus' loyalties remained with each other, but they collaborated with the Romans to eliminate the fanatical fundamentalist Sadducees nested in the temple. Josephus was their point man behind enemy lines, raising up a private army of Galileans to stymie the rebel war effort, surrendering without much resistance as soon as was possible, and, of course, being richly rewarded as a result.