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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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.
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