Who was the real Josephus?
(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making. Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus. The book is available here:
I am writing a series of profiles related to the book. This is part two of five. In part one, I offered the first of its kind: a critical evaluation of Elie Wiesel. Criticism of Wiesel, while working off the historical record, has been nonexistent up until this point. Why? I even answered that, too. To read the profile, please see the article below. Part three will examine another famous chronicler. Look for “Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?” coming in June.)
For those unaware, Josephus was one of the fundamental chroniclers of the 1st century. Or, in the time designation used by New Testament scholars, the Apostolic Age, or from the time of Jesus’s rising to the death of the last Apostle of twelve. Or, better yet, in the time designation used by chroniclers of that era (as I presented documentation with the term for the first time in Satan’s Synagogue), the Jesus Century. Josephus had, in his sightline, the lands of Judea and the Galilee. Though he spent the majority of his life in Rome, he never wrote about the center. He wrote about the periphery. Of course, Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem, didn’t consider the province of Judea to be peripheral to anything. In Josephus’s worldview, Jerusalem was the center.
Three of Josephus’s works have come down to us. The Jewish War opened Josephus’s oeuvre. Published around the year 77 of the Jesus Century, The Jewish War focused on the Jewish revolt against Rome in the years 66-73. Josephus himself played a fundamental role, according to his narrative, as he led the revolt in the Galilee. Unfortunately, his narrative turns out to be spurious in some fundamental ways. Writing history, it should always be noted, has much to do with who pays the bills.
Some two decades later, around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people. Antiquities surveyed a large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.
Josephus also included a section he called “The Life of Flavius Josephus.” We know that section today as his Vita. Modern scholars theorize that the Vita was an addition to Antiquities, not included in the original but added sometime thereafter. Some scholars theorize that Josephus took some hits for his low working knowledge of Greek and for the veracity in his chronicles, and he therefore felt obliged to write his Vita as a reputation-saving device. To some scholars, his Vita comes across as a correction. Notably, Josephus reviewed his battle against the Romans in the Galilee region. He’d originally written his narrative in The Jewish War. In his Vita, he offered some fundamentally different brushstrokes.
I am reminded now of Elie Wiesel and his 21st century translation of Night, or what I called the Oprah translation in Satan’s Synagogue. In explaining the need for a new translation, Wiesel first found fault with his knowledge of English at the time of the original translation. As he didn’t do the original translation work, that explanation seems dubious. Then, Wiesel concluded that with the new translation he would “correct and revise…”
Correct and revise: the words couldn’t be more applicable when considering Josephus’s Vita and his framing of the Galilee war.
The final book of Josephus’s life, according to the official record, was called Against Apion. Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century and Josephus’s title fell in line with his polemical career. In the work, Josephus had more than Apion in his sightlines. He excoriated a series of authors who dwelled in anti-Semitic slander. Of course, the term anti-Semitic didn’t exist back then, as anti-Jewish thought was entirely appropriate. But that’s a story for another time.
Those three works encompass the Josephus oeuvre, as we know it. The nearly 20-year gap provokes some questions. Did a work go missing? Was there a work completed in the decade of the 80s? If so, what would Josephus have had in his sightlines?
It turns out that, indeed, there was a book published. Josephus documented a route on the Silk Road. If that story sounds strange – why would a Jewish writer, writing predominantly about Judea and Samaria, focus on a China/Central Asia/Constantinople journey? – let me save that story for my next book project.
It also turns out that Josephus, indeed, wrote a book that pre-dated The Jewish War. As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, his first book was called Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus. Sequential order is important here. Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s. Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in the Galilee, according to his narrative. He became a prisoner but something unusual occurred. He gained the favor of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion. Vespasian made Josephus his translator. While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book. Published in the year 70, Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head. Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence. For the full story of how I found Against Mark, and for the full re-printing of the work, please do see Satan’s Synagogue. But suffice it to say that with Against Mark and with other documents that I alone possess – for now, I will in due time make them available to the public –a fuller profile of Josephus emerges.
Who was the real Josephus? What follows here is a profile. Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture. Here are ten brushstrokes:
1) Let’s start with biography. This is an excerpt from Against Mark. He offered some autobiographical sketch work, written during the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The year was 70. Josephus was there as part of the Roman negotiating team. “Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem. I look upon our fallen city and I see death. The number of dead in this bloody war totals one million of our brethren, with the enslavement of an additional 97,000 men, women and children. The streets are lined with bodies. I see faces in these bodies. I see the face of my father, Matthias, who descended from the High Priest Jonathan, who was brother to Judah Maccabee. I see the face of my older brother, Matthias, a priest, a just and learned man. I see the face of my mother, who descended from Jehoiarub, or the first of the priestly class who served the Temple during King David’s time. I see the face of my wife and our three sons: Hyrcanus, named after the High Priest in my great great grandfather’s time, Justus and Agrippa. Yes, I look at the ruined city and I see familiar faces. The death of Jerusalem is the death of us all.”
This is such a strange personal biography. Josephus clearly was haunted by the deaths of those around him and, perhaps, some of his family members died during the siege of Jerusalem. But we now know that his father committed suicide due to his pact with Vespasian (more on that later). Josephus’s three sons did not die during the siege, either. The first son was born in and around the year 73 in Rome. He survived his childhood. The other two sons did not. There are no records of other children produced by Josephus. Did he have children, and a wife, who all died during the siege of Jerusalem? That remains unknown. Did someone add to Josephus’s page some years later, interjecting the death of his sons? That remains unknown, too. Did Josephus’s record of loss and grief speak more to his own personal status? He became a turncoat, in Jewish opinion. He became a pariah. He would go on to become an important historian of his time, but in the Jewish world he could never escape his partnering with the enemy. He could never, for instance, return to his home world. Was this writing his way of dealing with the guilt of what he had become?
2) That leads to an amazing discovery I made in Rome. I found the location of Josephus’s house. I won’t go into too much detail here. I will in a future book project. But let me add to my first tour of Josephus, or what I called “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant” in Satan’s Synagogue. In the autumn of 2018, I completed a second tour. During that tour, to be entitled “The Tour de Josephus, Part II: Triumph and Churches,” I stood in an area just outside the Portico of Octavia, built by Augustus for his sister. It’s an historical center of Rome. From this spot, you can see the portico in all of its splendor. Just down the road stand the ruins of the Theatre of Marcellus, built by Augustus for his nephew. It looks like a significantly smaller version of the Colosseum. Perhaps Vespasian and his son Titus had the theatre in mind when they began the build out in the year 72. Fast forward some 1,480 years. The year now is 1555. Upon this spot, by order of Pope Paul IV, Rome constructed a Jewish ghetto. Paul IV was a short-lived pontiff. Four years. But his four years were marked by terroristic prejudice. Constructing the ghetto. Welcoming the Inquisition to Italy. Profiled as anti-Spanish, his anti-Jewish leanings were far more pronounced. And the Inquisition came.
The ghetto, it should be noted, was constructed on the other side of the Tiber. The italics are mine. The Vatican didn’t want the Jews near their citadel, so they used the river as a natural boundary. Ironically, of course, the ghetto went up in the heart of elite Ancient Rome. Ancient Rome constructed its ghetto on the other side of the Tiber. Or, what would become the Vatican state. These are the quirks of history. They come with windy consequences.
Those windy consequences blow in brutal gales. On this spot in 1943, the Germans created a staging ground. Not trusting the Italians to do the job, the Germans rounded up the Jews of the ghetto. There were some 1,260 Jews walled in then. They sent some 1,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. Sixteen survived. There are plaques on the buildings directly surrounding the portico, commemorating the deportation to Auschwitz.
Let’s go back some 1,940 years. This area, just over a mile away from the forum, was highly desirable. Only the fortunate settled here. Thanks to a document I have in hand, and recorded here for the first time, one of those homes belonged to Josephus himself. He lived there with his family until his death in the second century. He died, according to his son, while working on a history of Roman emperors and their attitudes towards Jerusalem. He died, notably, during the reign of Hadrian. Though Josephus did not live to see the day, Hadrian ordered the complete demolition of Jerusalem. He then ordered the rebuilding, to mirror Rome.
While Josephus did not complete this work, his son did. That work went out into the world in and around the year 140. It would have massive consequences for Josephus’s family. But more on that in a later book project.
Notably, Josephus didn’t live across the Tiber with his people in the Jewish ghetto of Ancient Rome. He lived in the Roman elite part of the city. What should be made of that? Why didn’t Josephus, a practicing Jew deriving from priestly line, live amongst Jews? Maybe the Jews of Rome, knowing Josephus’s history and the patrons who supported him, rejected him? Maybe his life on this side of Rome was by necessity, not choice. The italics are mine.
3) Who were Josephus’s patrons? The historical record identifies the Flavian dynasty, specifically Vespasian and Titus. But a weird hiccup occurred in the year 81. Titus died of brain fever. That same fever, or something similar, supposedly turned Caligula from a sympathetic emperor of the people to a mad tyrant. Josephus had Caligula in his sightlines in the last book of his life. But let’s leave that for a later time.
When Titus died, his brother Domitian rose to the purple. Domitian was anti-literature with a book-burning kind of fury. He probably made Nazi Germany proud. Domitian saw Josephus as a rival, obviously not for the seat of Rome but a rival for the legacy of the family. Domitian did exempt Josephus’s property from the land tax payable by all provincials, a rather incredible honor. But Domitian was incredibly anti-Jewish. If he wanted to purge Josephus, he did not. What, or who, stopped him?
As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, a secret patron saw to the welfare of Josephus. His name was Flavius Valerius Gaev Constantinus. When I first came upon the name, I naturally did a Google search. Except for a strange reference, called the Gaev Arch, significantly north of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, there’s not a shred of information. But something magical happened. In my research for Satan’s Synagogue, I came across a treasure trove of documents. Let me now provide some color.
Gaev, as he was known in his lifetime, spent the first half of his life as a Roman legionnaire. In fact, he played a role in the Roman/Jewish war of 66-73. He became a trusted confidant of the future emperor Titus. He gained the title of special counselor. Gaev thus took the Flavian given name to fall in line with the dynasty. Titus, through his father Vespasian, appointed Gaev to the senate in and around the year 73. Near the end of his life, Gaev came into some sort of trouble. Was it a public falling out with another powerful figure? Was it more sinister than that? Did Gaev lead an execution of a Roman citizen without trial? Some information edged up to such a conclusion, but if so, under Roman law, the executioner would have been banished. Rome had a penalty of exile for its citizens to avoid excessive capital punishment.
Gaev probably went west into what was known as Hispania. He spent the rest of his life in exile. He died during the reign of Hadrian in the second century. It is doubtful that he ever returned to Rome.
All the records on Gaev ended up at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain. In the 1950s, a young researcher removed those records from university holdings. Why he did so remains a mystery. But he passed those records on to me. I promise to return the documents to the university in due time. But first there’s another book to write, and it has to do with the Google reference to the Gaev Arch in Kazakhstan.
Gaev was probably born in Dardania, in the modern day Balkans. His father probably served as an officer in the army, and the son would follow the father. That position landed him in the Galilee in June of 67. According to Josephus’s written account in The Jewish War, the famed tenth legion of the Roman army burned the hill town of Jotopata to the ground and captured the leader of the Jewish army, Josephus himself. Josephus went before Vespasian, then general of the region and future emperor of Rome. Was Gaev present at that interview? Did Josephus’s behavior enrapture those present, as Josephus spun his story? Did a “friendship” form between Gaev and Josephus?
For the full history, please do see Satan’s Synagogue, but what’s clear is that Gaev and Josephus began to write letters to each other sometime in the mid-70s of the Jesus Century. A letter from Gaev to Josephus on June 23, 76 offered specific instructions. It spelled out, in short, what Josephus was to write.
Both men were in Rome, serving the Flavian dynasty. As a “quid pro quo,” Gaev promised protections and funding. So while Josephus, publicly, had the endowment of Emperors Vespasian and Titus, he secretly had the patronage of Senator Gaev. If either emperor, or the third in the Flavian dynasty, Domitian, knew of the agreement, there is no record.
The letter contained extremely important historical information. Consider the date. Gaev talked about the day with “a profundity of grief.” He attributed that grief to the “banishment and sudden death, exactly a decade earlier, to the day” of his “hero” and “teacher.” Gaev then named that cherished figure: “Paul of Giscala.”
4) Who was this man? According to Gaev, he led the “Jews for Jesus movement. His death, as his ship capsized off the coast of Malta, something of which you yourself are familiar with, sent shock and anguish through the community. Fortunately, his name lives on. I am writing to you now to express my hope that you will add some ingredients that, in turn, will be used to embroider his name for all eternity.”
Such interesting word choice: to “add some ingredients,” “to embroider.” Gaev, judging from the word choice, seemed to favor homebody pastimes. But to this knot of multi-layered detail, let’s try to comb through. There’s no definitive name to give the early church movement. As noted earlier, Scholars refer to the period as the Apostolic Age. I am using a different term, the Jesus Century. Those, though, are time designations. Gaev pronounced a different term: Jews for Jesus. If we think of the term as an abomination now, it apparently wasn’t then. It described a growing sect.
When did the term Christianity officially begin? We first see individuals identified as Christians in Acts of the Apostles, written sometime in the decade of the 80s. We also see those same individuals referred to as Nazarenes in Acts, in accordance with Jesus’s presumed birthplace. We never see them referred to as Jews for Jesus. Gaev’s reference suggested a name that didn’t make it into the canon.
But Gaev seemed to have an unidentified man as the leader of that movement. Or, have we put too much trust around the town of Tarsus? Did Gaev touch on some accurate history? The world knows of Paul (from the Greek), or Saul as he was known in the Hebrew, as a key player in the early church movement. Acts of the Apostles, and some letters found in the New Testament canon, spelled out the story. He was born in Tarsus, a hub of commerce located not far from the Roman center of Antioch. His father was a Pharisee who held Roman citizenship. This was unusual for a Jew, and that citizenship passed to Paul. That’s an important detail considering the stories around his death.
Around the age of 10, Paul went up to Jerusalem for his Jewish education. The New Testament then shifted to Paul’s fervent disdain for the early followers of Jesus. As a Pharisee and an educated Jew of means, he persecuted them. His conversion on the road to Damascus changed history irrevocably. But what if Paul originally came from Giscala and not Tarsus? How would that have altered the legend? Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace and childhood home established the apostle as an outsider. While his lineage was Jewish establishment, his personage developed many miles removed from the Judean center. The narrative could then build the burgeoning Christian movement as steps removed from the Jewish establishment. Easter becomes a fundamentally different codification scheme than Passover. With a Tarsus origin, Paul could throw off his Jewish roots on that road to Damascus: his Pharisee lineage, his parentage, his Jerusalem education could all be shunted.
But Paul, apparently, was a Galilean. Notably, a later chronicler, Jerome, gave Paul’s parents the Giscala address. Further, another letter from Gaev to Josephus delved into Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in the year 50 for a summit with Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just. While the New Testament recorded this interview as a foundational moment in the history of Christianity, as circumcision lost its sway, the canon missed some detail. According to Gaev, Paul first stopped in Giscala “for a period of repose.”
Why would Paul, on a fundamental mission, first stop at Giscala? Consider the geography. The town was situated in the north of the Galilee, separated from Caesarea by forty-eight miles on today’s roads. To get there from the coast, as Paul did after reaching one of the ports, Caesarea or Joppa or Tyre, would have meant an excursion significantly out of his way. Paul must have had a personal reason for trekking to Giscala, like visiting aging parents.
Is it possible then that the Tarsus-as-origin detail in the New Testament is a fiction, a literary tool? That question segues to Paul’s death. Did he die in Rome, as various sources suggest? How did he die? Was he martyred, as second century missives stated? Why was he martyred? According to source material, the Emperor Nero condemned Paul to death. Legend then sprouted that Paul’s body was buried outside Rome, on an estate owned by an early supporter of the Christian movement. The Emperor Constantine built the first church on those grounds. That’s notable given Gaev’s birth name, Valerius Gaev Constantinus. Was Gaev an ancestor of Constantine? Were Constantine’s Christian sympathies in his bloodlines, so to speak? For the letter from Gaev to Josephus clearly showed Gaev’s allegiance to Paul and the burgeoning Christian movement. Or, why else did Gaev refer to Paul as “hero” and “teacher” and more, as “friend.”
If Paul wasn’t martyred but died in another fashion, did the martyring provide a foundational mooring for the legend? By martyring, he fell in line with the death of Jesus, and so the age that began with martyr involved a second martyr with long-reaching tentacles.
Gaev’s letter provided answers. According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul was shipwrecked three times. Gaev’s letter pointed to a fourth shipwreck, this one resulting in his death. Gaev’s letter also touched upon Josephus’s personal history, or “something of which you yourself are familiar with.” But the death date in the letter fell after a period of “banishment.” Why was Paul banished from Rome? Gaev gave no reason. Certainly Roman citizens were banished all the time. And certainly Nero loved his beheadings, as the legend of Paul’s death was built upon. But if accurate, Nero pronounced a capital punishment death on a Roman citizen. As that pronouncement went against Roman law, there would have been rumblings in the senate. Those rumblings might have been recorded. The historical record misses any such rumblings.
As for Gaev, he ran the risk of banishment for his secret association with the early church movement. If Titus, for instance, found out about Gaev’s association, how would he have responded? One thing is clear: there would have been a response.
But Gaev’s letter left all of these questions adrift and moved on to the mission, or adding “ingredients” to “embroider” the legacy. “The movement needs a historian,” Gaev wrote to Josephus. “As Jesus Christ was presented in a heralded light in the Book of Mark, so too must Paul fall within that glow. From his origins to his final days, and all the days in between, he is messenger and portent. He is oracle and apostle.”
The letter continued. “From our time together, I can think of nobody better suited to touch on the early history of Paul, the pre-history to the Jews for Jesus movement, than you. It has come to my attention that you are writing a complete history of the rebellion. If you include a last stand, I would be supremely pleased. I would see your contribution as a quid pro quo. To the pacified country, to the tired 10th sailing home, consider a different history. A final protracted battle in which the overwhelmed rebels fight on against our legionnaires. The rebels lose, but along the way the rendering of struggle and tenacity comes into the world, the rendering of righteousness. From these rebels, Paul sprouts.”
Josephus’s immediate reaction to these marching orders remains a mystery. Notably, as Gaev commented, Josephus was in the midst of writing The Jewish War. Where he was in the writing process, we do not know. But the final version of that history provided a roadmap for what Gaev had in mind.
5) Josephus did something incredibly inventive. He found the ideal place for a “final protracted battle.” He built the Masada legend at the end of The Jewish War. Today, we think of Masada as a last stand. Some 1,000 Jewish rebels, known as Sicarii, outduel the Romans for an extended period of time from a fortress in the Judean Desert. When it becomes clear that the Romans will win, the Jews take their own lives.
The history is more complex. Let’s turn to a strange reference in Acts of the Apostle. Paul, in Jerusalem to stand trial for his life, went before a Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias. Hearing Paul speak in Greek, Lysias questioned if this Paul was the “Egyptian who led a force of 4,000 Sicarii into the wilderness.”
To get this reference, by the way, the reader must have the King James version. The New International Version, the New American Standard, the New Revised Standard Version and all recent translations have the Sicarii translated as assassins or terrorists. Wilderness also comes across as desert. It’s a total misreading of the text.
Paul’s reaction to the charge spoke volumes. He neither denied nor admitted any backstory. Instead, he glossed over the charge by providing his birth city. Paul’s answer had nothing to do with Claudius Lysias’s question. Paul then asked to give a speech before his arrest. The speech became foundational in the Christian narrative. The Sicarii detail got lost, or shunted.
But with Gaev’s letter in mind, the Sicarii reference now has some context. Acts of the Apostles came into the Jesus Century at least a few years after The Jewish War. Meaning: Josephus’s story of Masada had been in the public domain for some time. Followers of the faith could have connected the dots from Acts back to Josephus.
Now, let’s consider a question. What if Gaev had others secretly in his patronage? What if the author of Acts of the Apostles was under Gaev’s authority? In his efforts to get out a Paulist iconography, what if Gaev pressured that author to add the “4,000 Sicarii” detail? To the author of Acts, the detail might have been seen as a frivolity. The entire scene revolved around Paul’s speech to his audience. Certainly, Gaev would have wanted that speech. But in Gaev’s iconography, Paul as a Sicarii would have linked to Josephus’s Masada story. Paul as Sicarii would have come across as a more layered origin story. His emergence would have come as a justified mutineer. He would have been the rebel turned oracle. Such a rendering would have begun the process of coloring Paul in that “heralding light.”
6) Let’s return to Josephus and his Masada invention. To understand how he created the scene, we have to go much further back in time, sometime to the late 11th century, BCE. There, we find another important Saul, King Saul, in a death struggle with the Philistines. According to the prophet Samuel, Saul couldn’t tolerate the Philistine occupation and rebellion broke out. The climactic scene occurred in and around Mount Gilboa. The Philistines routed the Jewish armies and “the battle pressed hard upon Saul.” He was severely wounded. His sons were killed. The enemy encroached. Saul had a death conversation with his bodyguard. He asked the man to kill him, so that “these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” The bodyguard refused. Saul took his own sword and “fell upon it.” Note the understated phraseology. Josephus sure did. (See 1 Samuel 31:3-6. New Revised Standard Version.)
Now, Saul had to die for the Book of Samuel to get to its real hero, David. But let’s leave that literary device for Josephus’s device. He built from the Saul story. In the Masada story, the leader of the Sicarii, Eliezer, feared Roman procedure. Before the final battle with Rome, he talked about dishonorable death. As Josephus wrote in The Jewish War, Eliezer “had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all.” Death by suicide under these kinds of circumstances, Eliezer argued, would shock the Romans. Roman victory would be denied. Roman “amazement” at such a “brave death” would be a lasting reaction. Josephus seemed to have Saul’s final bow in mind, or the understated falling on his sword, when writing of Eliezer. He “let the sword do its damage.”
Of course, Josephus needed witnesses to tell the story. He didn’t have a prophet like Samuel around. He identified some women in hiding. With these witnesses, the tale got told. The template of Saul was lost.
What would we know of the Jewish rebellion if not for Josephus’s work? Very little. Josephus then is a must read. But a cautionary read. He took a history of war and destruction, of massacres and annihilation, and built upon it. He added layers of fiction. He stoked legend. He developed characters for reasons outside historical accuracy. He did more than involve himself in the drama. He billboarded himself. He spread a fog of fact.
Who else does that sound like? It sounds remarkably like the great chronicler of the 20th century, Elie Wiesel (please see the article below for more on that). Maybe Wiesel read Josephus?
7) Did Josephus meet Paul? It’s an interesting question of historical connection. There were two possible meeting points. The second occurred in the mid-60s. According to Josephus’s narrative, he journeyed from Jerusalem to Rome in the year 63 to meet with Emperor Nero’s people. Apparently there were Jewish priests held in Roman prisons. Apparently Josephus led a delegation to argue for their release. Josephus did not mention how he came to serve as lead negotiator. Let’s leave that story for the moment. According to Josephus, he didn’t make it back to Jerusalem until the year 66. What happened during those three years? Was Josephus successful in his efforts to free the priests? The record remains murky. There are no records delving into the priests, their imprisonment, or Josephus’s acts of negotiation. Perhaps Josephus, indeed, argued on their behalf. Or, perhaps Josephus, once again, had literary device in mind. Perhaps Josephus created a legend.
Let’s now follow the coastline along the Mediterranean, from Josephus’s Jerusalem and wider Judea to Alexandria. That city saw a pogrom in the year 38 of the Jesus Century. The provocation, ostensibly, stemmed from a decree by Emperor Gaius Caligula. He wanted to be worshipped as a god. The Jews refused, as that meant the desecration of their temples. A Jewish eyewitness to the pogrom, Philo, published his account a few years later. It is the most reliable description of events passed down to the modern age. Still, there are questions about Philo’s chronicle. What level of accuracy did he seek? What was his agenda in his reportage? His chronicle has been described as a “novel” that “did not aim at giving a detailed historical account.” It has been described as prejudice, containing exaggeration. (See Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World. See also Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt.)
To be clear, Philo was writing for the Jewish community. He served an important function: a Jewish patriot. He therefore needed a slew of enemies and, as his reportage demonstrated, an archenemy. The title of his reportage identified his first archenemy, In Flaccum.
Avilius Flaccus was the Roman prefect of Egypt. He gained his position under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius. In the first five years of his administration Flaccus appeared as a fair leader, according to Philo. He displayed no anti-Jewish tendencies. That all changed when Flaccus began to “behave erratically.”
Why did his behavior change? Philo offered the death of Tiberius as speculation, and the rise of Gaius Caligula. Rightfully assuming that Caligula would consolidate his power base through assassination – Caligula quickly got rid of his two main rivals, the co-emperor Tiberius Gemellus and the praetorian Macro – Flaccus realized that the times called for a dire, and life-saving, strategy. He sought allies among the Greek elite. Those representatives, a “mob” in the characterization of Philo, advised Flaccus to win Caligula’s support by sacrificing the Jews. In his chronicle, Philo then found enemies everywhere: in the Roman prefect, in the Alexandrian Greeks, in the Emperor Caligula.
Philo’s reportage ebbed toward an explosion. The mob expelled the Jews from four of the five quarters, including Delta, the Jewish quarter. The pogrom then moved to the next stage: exile, and with the mobsters dividing “the booty among themselves as if it were war.”
Exile left the Jews destitute. According to Philo, the resulting unemployment was “even more unbearable than the plundering.” Unemployment and poverty led to a famine.
To exile, to destitution, to famine, Philo added the “bloodthirstiness” of the perpetrators. They “stoned any Jews they happened to catch sight of, or beat them to death with clubs…”
Meanwhile, the “perpetrator of enormities,” as Philo rendered Flaccus, “… devised a monstrous and unparalleled attack.” He arrested the 38 members of the gerousia, or the Council of Elders responsible for self-government. He had their hands bound. He marched these elders through the market to the theater. There, he ordered the council “to be stripped and lacerated with scourges…” Philo continued, “As a result of the flogging some of them died the moment they were carried away, whereas others were ill for such a long time that they despaired of ever recovering.”
Philo’s chronicle then twisted toward a just conclusion. Caligula, hearing of the riots through his Jewish ally, King Agrippa, sent a centurion and a company of soldiers to arrest Flaccus. In Philo’s rendering, the mission surprised Flaccus, as he had convinced himself that he’d moved into the emperor’s good grace.
Here’s where things get interesting, from the Josephus perspective. Sometime around Flaccus’s execution in the year 39 – the dates remain hazy – Caligula received two delegations from Alexandria to quell the violence. Philo headed the Jewish delegation. Apion headed the Greek delegation. The Greek delegation presented first. Only many months later did Caligula hear the Jewish side, with a Greek delegation present. The setting for the conference appeared almost farcical: in two villas on the Esquiline hill.
During the conference, according to Philo, Caligula walked through the villas and gardens, commenting on architecture and flowers. The Jews felt “crushed to pieces.” They gave up. “There was no strength left in us,” Philo wrote. The emperor seemed to be influenced by the Jews’ squashed state. The conference, described by Philo as a “theatre and a prison in place of a tribunal,” ended with Caligula’s new view of the Jews. “‘They seem to me to be a people unfortunate rather than wicked and to be foolish in refusing to believe that I have got the nature of a god.’” (Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, trans. by F.H. Colson.)
The Jews intersection with Caligula ended there. He was assassinated in January 41 of the Jesus Century. His successor, Claudius, restored some Jewish rights while warning the Jewish community not to demand more rights than they had previously. Still, the conflict simmered. Fears remained that Jewish-promulgated riots might cause revolt elsewhere in the Empire. Those fears proved bona fide. A straight line connects the pogrom of 38 to the revolt of 66-73.
Josephus, writing of Philo in Antiquities, and again in Against Apion, highlighted the conference on the Esquiline hill, even more so than the pogrom in Alexandria. Was that a tell? Did Josephus use the conference to subtly present a grandiose self-image?
Let’s go back to the year 63. According to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he went to Rome to negotiate with the emperor on behalf of imprisoned priests. The negotiation seemed to take an extended period. Again according to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he didn’t return to Jerusalem for three years. The record ends there. We don’t know if Josephus would have described the negotiation as farce and “theatre,” as Philo did. We don’t know the fate of the priests. We don’t have Josephus’s personal views on Nero, to parallel Philo’s personal views on Caligula. All we have is Josephus’s rather self-serving reference as negotiator.
Still, the parallel is remarkable. The question lingers. Did Josephus in his narrative of Philo mold a Josephus-like character? Did he then build up Philo to parallel and promote the legend of Josephus?
Notably, a 20th century writer came along and used this example as his template. To read the oeuvre of Elie Wiesel is to see characters presented to parallel and promote his own mythology? Someone should do a study.
8) All of this returns us to Paul, or Saul, and a possible meeting point with Josephus. To Rome in the decade of the 60s, there was an earlier option: Jerusalem in the 40s of the Jesus Century. Paul – born in Tarsus, or, according to new information presented here, Giscala – went up to Jerusalem for his schooling. According to Acts of the Apostles, he entered into study with the famed Gamaliel the Elder. Gamaliel sat on the Sanhedrin. He probably died sometime in the decade of the 50s.
Another rabbi occupied a chair on the Sanhedrin. His name was Mattathias ben Theophilus and he would ascend to the high priesthood around the year 60. Little else is known about this Mattathias. It is thought that he was high priest when the war with Rome came. In fact, that was the case. As I am in possession of some documents concerning Mattathias (or Matthias, depending upon translation) ben Theophilus, I can fill in some blanks. Mattathias ben Theophilus served as high priest until his death in the year 68. He died a pariah. He was not buried in the hills surrounding Mount Scopus or on the Mount of Olives, as was tradition. He was not buried in Jerusalem. A small detail in a document suggests that his bones were “banished.”
Why was he banished? Let’s go back to the year 66 and the war clouds building over Judea. In Jerusalem, the elders held a meeting in the Temple compound. War plans were hatched. Rebellion leaders were named to take control of various regions. They gained titles as General Governors. Josephus became the General Governor of the Galilee. That appointment came as a surprise. Josephus was a rabbinical scholar. He had no experience in war preparation or tactics. He was not an organizer. Further, the Romans would be coming from Syria, through the Galilee, on their march to Jerusalem. The defenders of the Galilee would be the first responders. The General Governor of the Galilee was a major appointment.
It turns out, based on a document that I hold, that Josephus gained his appointment through nepotism. His father was the high priest, Mattathias ben Theophilus. Perhaps this familial connection also explains how Josephus led the delegation to Nero’s Rome, if that history actually occurred.
Mattathias’s appointment of his son led to his own death. A deal was struck, following the downfall of the Galilee. Vespasian, then general of the Roman army, presented terms to High Priest Mattathias ben Theophilus. Here are Vespasian’s words, paraphrased by Josephus: “You, Mattathias ben Theophilus, High Priest of the Temple and supreme leader of your people, must resign. I give you your son’s life for your own sacrifice. You must then take your own life, as any disgraced Roman would. Further, your successor shall come from the rank and file, an amateur with little ability to galvanize his people and therefore threaten Rome.”
This was the deal offered, and accepted. There is no evidence that Mattathias attempted to negotiate the terms. He clearly was in no position to counter-offer. His only leverage was sacrifice. He sacrificed all. He made the deal. He kept to the terms. He died a pariah. A suicidal death explains why his bones would be exiled.
9) Notably, there are references to a man named Theophilus in the Gospels, specifically The Book of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Some New Testament scholars believe this Theophilus and the High Priest were the same man. They are correct. But there’s more. As documents show, and as I promise to write more in full in my next book, Mattathias ben Theophilus routinely returned to the Hillel school for night study. Mattathias ben Theophilus originally attended the Hillel school under the leadership of Shimon ben Hillel. Shimon, the son of the legendary Hillel the Elder, died young. His son, Gamaliel, took over the school. Documents identify those in attendance in these night study sessions. There was the teacher, Gamaliel. There was the “most learned” of the Sanhedrin, Mattathias ben Theophilus. There was the “heretic.” A man identified as Saul, who “broke” with the Temple, to become a “Jew for Jesus.” There was also a young scholar, who had become “an authority on the intricacies of Jewish law.” His name was Yosef ben Mattathias. He would become known to the world as Josephus.
It’s an incredible find. Paul was then in the midst of sailing the Mediterranean and building the church movement. Apparently, he stopped periodically in Jerusalem for study. But note the term used to describe him: a “heretic,” from the Greek. The men in attendance welcomed the heretic to their night studies. Clearly, Saul had something to offer. These sessions were clandestine. It would have been heresy in the world of the Pharisees to appear with Paul.
10) There’s another incredible find. I wrote about this history in full in Satan’s Synagogue, but it’s worth repeating here, in smaller detail. As noted in these pages, Josephus’s Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world in the year 70. Later Christians attempted to eviscerate its existence. They succeeded for nearly 1,950 years. The book disappeared from view until its reemergence in Satan’s Synagogue in 2019. How did I find the manuscript?
Let’s go back to the destruction of the Temple. There was a beadle with a saving acumen. He had some foresight. He began to remove books from the Temple library in the early days of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire. The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings. For four years, or from the early days of the war in the year 66 up until the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle squired books away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews. The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, on the Mount of Olives.
In the case of Against Mark, the beadle took his scheme further. He let Josephus know of his exploits. He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.
Josephus became a prisoner of Rome. Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries. He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative. That information got passed on. There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself. An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next. These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs. A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts. I have done extensive research to uncover some ninety percent of the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project. But I will say this: there are some famous names in that catalog. Famous Christians throughout the ages actually descended from Jewish high priests.
A few years back, I received an email from a relative I had never met before. As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD. In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person. We met. He explained the autocatalytic phenomenon in full. I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD. I am.
I did something no other JDD had done. I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I found the burial spot. I didn’t find the book there, as that specific part of the cemetery was in repair. But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground. I found the book.
I couldn’t read the pages, as I am illiterate in its language. I then made a copy of the manuscript and sent that copy to my man in Toronto. Let me take a moment to introduce Eli Pfefferkorn. I promise to write a profile on the man but, for now, let me offer a few brushstrokes. Pfefferkorn was a born in Poland at the worst possible time, or some ten years before the Germans pulverized the nation. He died in Canada in 2017. Along the way, he lived in England and Israel and the United States. He was highly intelligent, highly provocative, highly conniving. He was a camp survivor. In the language of the camps, he was an organizer. Meaning: a forager, a scavenger, or somebody who quickly learned how to survive in that world of the absolute negative. Pfefferkorn survived the death camp of Majdanek. He was one of the few. He was a born and fantastic storyteller. But nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity. In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name. There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was impossible to tell the difference. There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history.
Pfefferkorn was also a polyglot. He could read Aramaic. Had Josephus written Against Mark in Greek or Hebrew or Latin, or a more modern day language like German or French or Polish, I could have taken that manuscript to Pfefferkorn, too. Pfefferkorn translated the book from Aramaic to English.
Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or the Second Temple period. I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus. He just never gained the recognition. Maybe that will start to change now.