Titus Flavius Josephus and the Prophet Jeremiah

Avishai Margalit contrasts the legacies of a historian and a prophet

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in September 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.


In the first-century Jewish revolt against Rome, Josephus failed to honor the suicide pact he made with his soldiers. When he was later captured and taken to Rome, he predicted that the Roman commander Vespasian would become emperor. When the prediction proved accurate, Josephus was taken into the imperial family and became known as Flavius Josephus.

Titus Flavius Josephus is best remembered as an unparalleled chronicler of first-century C.E. Jewish history. His legacy also includes a military record marked by the betrayal of his peers and capitulation to the Romans. As a commander in the Jewish revolt, Josephus attempted to persuade his companions to open the gates of Yodfat for the Romans, and when the city fell, he reneged on the group’s suicide pact and personally surrendered. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Titus Flavius Josephus lived as a Roman citizen in the emperor’s palace, enjoying the luxurious life of a dignitary and scholar.

Josephus’s repeated calls for surrender to the Romans have been labeled as betrayal. In the September/October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, distinguished scholar Avishai Margalit contrasts the historian’s tarnished reputation with that of the prophet Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah also urged total surrender to a militarily superior foe, the Babylonians. He tried to escape Jerusalem, and, much like Titus Flavius Josephus, was accused of trying to defect. Avishai Margalit asks: how is it that the Biblical prophet Jeremiah is revered while Josephus is criticized?

Avishai Margalit

Avishai Margalit writes that “Josephus offers two kinds of defenses: defense of creed and defense of his people.” Josephus portrayed the zealots as irrational while defending the majority of Jews and the Roman dynasty, conveniently omitting the widespread support for the revolt and the atrocities committed by the Romans. Margalit writes that Jeremiah is also a historian, but “his appeal to history is not out of an interest in human affairs as such, but rather in history as a source of obligations to God. The religion of the Bible is, broadly speaking, a historically based religion; the primary arena of the Bible is history; the divine manifestation is set essentially in history.”

Neither Titus Flavius Josephus nor the prophet Jeremiah considered the creation of a Judean vassal state to be idolatry, and both took it upon themselves to warn their people of the superior military force of their enemies. Yet Avishai Margalit states that, “Josephus was tainted by his relation to power; Jeremiah was willing to risk everything. Josephus’s relation to power should not disqualify him as a witness in the court of history but it does disqualify him as a moral witness: a moral witness is never in the service of the ruling power.”


For more on the legacy of historians and prophets, read Avishai Margalit, “Josephus vs. Jeremiah: The Difference Between Historian and Prophet” in the September/October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Masada, the mountaintop fortress that set the stage for one of the ancient world’s most dramatic tragedies, is today one of the world’s most iconic archaeological sites. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Jeremiah, Prophet of the Bible, Brought Back to Life

Josephus on the Essenes

Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical is It?

The Masada Siege


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22 Responses

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  1. Donald says

    Whatever else he was, Josephus became an instrument of God to chronicle the fulfillment of Prophecy.

    His writings reveal the wonder of Christ’s call for the destruction of the evil city “that murdered the Prophets and God’s Saints” being carried out as he proclaimed in Matt. 23, 24 and the Book of Revelation..

  2. Joseph says

    The fundamental factor about Josephus is he was emmersed in a war much bigger than he realized, and this may also apply to us, this generation. Far from being limited by religious groups scoring points, this was an epic battle for Monotheism. Josephus’ focus was about survival and he would have never imagined the Jews would come out triumphant. We know who won because we do not worship Jupiter or Zeus today!?

  3. Gert says

    The romans won the battle, while the Jews won the war. The romans lost by winning, while the Jews won by losing. This is the eternal riddle of the people of Israel throughout the centuries.

  4. JAllan says

    Scholars are not sure how much of what Josephus’ writings say about Jesus are his own and how much were added by pious Christian editors to later copies. At a bare minimum, he seems to acknowledge that a “rebel” (from his viewpoint) named Jesus was crucified, indicating that this Jesus (there were probably others, since Yeshua or Joshua was a common name) was well enough known to be mentioned. Some other passages describing Him as Savior were probably added by copyists.

  5. JAllan says

    It is worth noting that Josephus is the only non-Christian source that mentions Jesus by name, which is not surprising since the immediate SECULAR impact of His ministry was minor, and those who were not part of the movement would regard him as just “one of the Jewish rebels” who got a few followers from time to time. Even WITHIN the Christian movement, it was not until the 70’s or 80’s that information about His LIFE, rather than His theological role as described by Paul, resulting in the Gospel of Mark; and not until the 80’s or 90’s that Matthew and Luke tried to get the scoop on His birth circumstances (since their stories contradict in several important points, they probably both relied on rumors). So it is not surprising that the first references in secular documents are to the Christians as a movement rather than the founder of that movement. Rome did not think Jesus was important until they began to worship Him!

  6. JAllan says

    correction: … information about His LIFE, … WAS SOUGHT FOR, resulting in …

  7. Joseph says

    In Josephus’ time there were no Christians as yet. The religion took off like wild fire, but this was not in the first century. The term Christian first emerged 174 CE. Josephus was a captive and his writings are inclined in white washing the Romans as nice guys. Otherwise, his writings of the temple stats, brick sizes and other details are 100% correct.

  8. Peter says

    Joseph – Acts 11:26 tells us, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Acts of the Apostles was completed around A.D. 62, while Paul yet lived. Also, Claudius (r. A.D. 47-54)banished the Jews from Rome, “because of Chrestus”

  9. RichBAR says

    Religion requires unconditional faith in rabidly believing that which is not sensible, in fact “childish”. [As Einstein wrote]

    Josephus was clearly an arrogant, selfish and immoral man who quickly betrayed anyone 4his own personal benefit. He lived lavishly in Rome after many betrayals by glorifying Rome’s defeated Jewish enemies, making their defeat even sweeter. Mostly fake history.

    His is not factual history, only sprinkled with physical facts 4some context. “Tainted”, eh?

  10. Even says

    good article but I would disagree with one supposition:

    “Josephus’s relation to power should not disqualify him as a witness in the court of history but it does disqualify him as a moral witness: a moral witness is never in the service of the ruling power.”

    I would say Yosef (Joseph) under Potiphar and then under Pharaoh brings just a couple of many examples to mind of the an antithesis of the above quote from this article . . .
    I understand the premise of the supposition, but “NEVER”

  11. DONALD says

    No matter what Josephus did to save himself it was the will of God that achieved this. If a much less sophisticated and educated man than Josephus had survived he may have not had the ability or the will to leave so much knowledge of Jewish life and history for prosperity or to confirm the existence of Christ outside of the Bible in a secular venue.

  12. Marlene says

    What about Daniel…..He was in the service of the ruling power
    What about Esther….she as in the service of the ruling power yet revered as a heroine
    What about Joseph…………and the list goes on!!

  13. Jose says

    Everything I have red was of my interest

  14. Darcy says

    There are no mentions of Jesus by any contemporaries. Josephus was also born 3 or 4 years after jesus’ supposed death. Pliny the Elder would have definitely heard of a jesus if he existed and would have written about him but it never happened. The writings mentioning Jesus mysteriously pop up during the 3rd century and I commonly thought of as a forgery.

  15. William says

    Some of you say things like “Mostly fake history……His is not factual history, only sprinkled with physical facts 4some context. “Tainted”, eh?”. May I ask how, since you were not there, how you know such a thing? Do you have another source that somehow qualifies as more reliable(still not sure how you would know which one was more reliable) that contradicts the witness of Josephus? In fact, is there any other witness to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD? If not, I don’t know how you can contradict what he wrote.

    Also, Joseph says “In Josephus’ time there were no Christians as yet. The religion took off like wild fire, but this was not in the first century. The term Christian first emerged 174 CE” and Darcy says “There are no mentions of Jesus by any contemporaries. Josephus was also born 3 or 4 years after jesus’ supposed death. Pliny the Elder would have definitely heard of a jesus if he existed and would have written about him but it never happened.”

    Pliny the Younger(about 112) wrote about persecuting Christians, but Pliny the Elder may well not have heard about Him. Since most of his time during the life of Jesus and for quite a while after was spent in Germany, I’m not sure why he would be expected to know of Jesus who died over in Jerusalem during those years?

    While it is true that the famous Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus was not a contemporary of Jesus and neither was Nero, Tacitus wrote about Nero(64AD) torturing Christians, and about their leader Christus being executed in the reign of Tiberius by Pilate(which would have been about AD30). Both Tacitus and Nero were a long time before 174AD. And for there to have been Christians for Nero to torture, then they must have been growing for some years before 64AD. Where do you get this “The term Christian first emerged 174 CE” idea? Or are you saying that Tacitus’ statement is a forgery? If so, how do you know that?

    And what about the hostile references in the Talmud between 70 and 200AD? These are hostile to Jesus, but he must have existed for them to be so hostile in their writings. (Still not a contemporary, but awfully close). What about the Apostles? They were contemporaries for sure.

    OK, I get that many no more believe in them than they do Jesus. But what about the early Church fathers, from many different countries, whose writings we have and date back to about 100? Some of them claim to have studied at the feet of the Apostle John. There are quite a few of these guys. Many of them existing way, way before 174. How could there be so many if the term Christian was not even used until 174? Plus, there is a copy of John 18 that dates to 125. 174? Good grief. I think more likely used by 64, by the time of Nero or earlier.

  16. Shawna says

    The “facts” stated here are completely different than history and archeology has shown us this far. Very strange that it seems major things were completely changed for this post. Definitely a red flag and makes you wonder even more deeply.

  17. Rob says

    The major difference between Jeremiah and Josephus was that God told Jeremiah to proclaim to Israel that they would be taken into captivity by Babylon. Josephus appeared to be simply surviving.

  18. Larry says

    Was Masada a cover-up by either Paul or the Romans to locate and destroy any and all documents in an effort to whip out any evidence of Jesus of Nazareth and His Way Movement. Thus, setting up a new invention of the Christian Church and its absolute control with power, greed etc.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge? | newsantiques.com linked to this post on March 2, 2014

    […] Gregorian calendar is also a bit uncertain. According to a translator of a lawful interpretation of Josephus, a ancient historian who gives us a many minute (if infrequently unreliable; see sidebar) comment […]

  2. The Expulsion of the Hyksos | historyonly linked to this post on March 2, 2014

    […] While Josephus cites Manetho’s history associating the Israelites with the Hyksos, many modern scholars see problems with Manetho’s conflation of the expulsion of the Hyksos and the Biblical narrative. Manetho lived many centuries after these events took place, and he may have combined two different narratives, wittingly or unwittingly, when associating the Hyksos and Israelites. Ahmose’s defeat of the Hyksos occurred centuries before the traditional date of the Exodus. In addition, the basic premise of the Hyksos and Exodus histories differ: the Hyksos were expelled rulers of Egypt, not slaves, and they were forced out, not pursued. […]

  3. The Expulsion of the Hyksos | newsantiques.com linked to this post on March 31, 2014

    […] Josephus cites Manetho’s historical past associating the Israelites with the Hyksos, many up to date […]

  4. THE MASADA SIEGE:The Roman Assault on Herod’s Desert Fortress | RUTHFULLY YOURS linked to this post on June 16, 2014

    […] Trapped in the desert fortress-palace Herod built in the previous century, the rebels chose—as Jewish historian Josephus tells us—to commit mass suicide rather than be captured and enslaved by the […]

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