A historian specializing in the study of Josephus, Steve Mason, presents a case that the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was not prompted by any messianic movement among the people of Judaea. Rather, Mason suggests that the prophecy of a ruler to come out of the east and rule the entire world was a product of hindsight and that there is little reason to think that there was a “messianic movement” propelling the Jews to rebel against Rome.
I can’t hope to cover the full argument set out by Mason in A history of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 in a single post but I will try to hit some key points from pages 111 to 130 here.
To begin. It is a misunderstanding to think that we can read the works of Josephus as if they were a chronicle of facts happily shedding light on the background to the rise of Christianity.
History as Tragedy
To get the most reliable data from Josephus we need to study his works in the context of other historical writings of his day. In that context it is evident that Josephus is writing a “tragic history” — a narrative that he presents as a tragedy, a form of narrative with which his Greco-Roman audience was familiar. As a tragedy Josephus seeks to elicit tears of sympathy from his audience by using all of his rhetorical skills to portray graphic suffering and misfortune. In War Josephus opens with the proud Herod whose hubris is brought low by the misfortunes that follow. The audience knows how the story ends and knowing that only adds to their awareness of the tragedy in each scene. The irony of temple slaughter at Passover time would have been as clear to Roman as to Jewish readers: Passover was known to have been the festival of liberation.
A tragedy needs villains and Josephus fills his narrative with an abundance of “robbers” or “bandits” who polluted the temple, just as per Jeremiah 7:11 said they would.
“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”
Josephus was in good literary company since we find the same motif being drafted by the Roman historian Tacitus when narrating the destruction of the central temple in Rome:
Thus the Capitoline temple, its doors locked, was burned to the ground undefended and unplundered. This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. Though no foreign enemy threatened, though we enjoyed the favour of heaven as far as our failings permitted, the sanctuary of Jupiter Best and Greatest solemnly founded by our fathers as a symbol of our imperial destiny . . . was now, thanks to the infatuation of our leaders, suffering utter destruction. (Hist. 3.72 — I am using my Penguin translation and not the one used by Mason)
Josephus blends Jewish and Greek literary motifs in his tragic narration (Mason, pp. 114-121). A stock motif in tragic narrative were omens of imminent disaster and ambiguous prophecies that would mislead the hapless victims.
Tragedy’s Stock Omens and Prophecies
A motif that was virtually universal in ancient historiography was that a change of ruler should be preceded by omens and prophecies. We see it in the history of Tacitus describing the ascent of Vespasian (I quote from LacusCurtius, Histories, Book 2.78- the extract is not quoted by Mason):
After Mucianus had spoken, the rest became bolder; they gathered about Vespasian, encouraged him, and recalled the prophecies of seers and the movements of the stars. Nor indeed was he wholly free from such superstitious belief, as was evident later when he had obtained supreme power, for he openly kept at court an astrologer named Seleucus, whom he regarded as his guide and oracle. Old omens came back to his mind: once on his country estate a cypress of conspicuous height suddenly fell, but the next day it rose again on the selfsame spot fresh, tall, and with wider expanse than before. This occurrence was a favourable omen of great significance, as the haruspices all agreed, and promised the highest distinctions for Vespasian, who was then still a young man. At first, however, the insignia of a triumph, his consulship, and his victory over Judea appeared to have fulfilled the promise given by the omen; yet after he had gained these honours, he began to think that it was the imperial throne that was foretold. Between Judea and Syria lies Carmel: this is the name given to both the mountain and the divinity. The god has no image or temple — such is the rule handed down by the fathers; there is only an altar and the worship of the god. When Vespasian was sacrificing there and thinking over his secret hopes in his heart, the priest Basilides, after repeated inspection of the victim’s vitals, said to him: “Whatever you are planning, Vespasian, whether to build a house, or to enlarge your holdings, or to increase the number of your slaves, the god grants you a mighty home, limitless bounds, and a multitude of men.” This obscure oracle rumour had caught up at the time, and now was trying to interpret; nothing indeed was more often on men’s lips. It was discussed even more in Vespasian’s presence — for men have more to say to those who are filled with hope. The two leaders now separated with clear purposes before them, Mucianus going to Antioch, Vespasian to Caesarea. Antioch is the capital of Syria, Caesarea of Judea.
Similarly from Suetonius in his Life of Vespasian:
5 1 While Otho and Vitellius were fighting for the throne after the death of Nero and Galba, [Vespasian] began to cherish the hope of imperial dignity, which he had long since conceived because of the following portents.
2 On the suburban estate of the Flavii an old oak tree, which was sacred to Mars, on each of the three occasions when Vespasia was delivered suddenly put forth a branch from its trunk, obvious indications of the destiny of each child. The first was slender and quickly withered, and so too the girl that was born died within the year; the second was very strong and long and portended great success, but the third was the image of a tree. Therefore their father Sabinus, so they say, being further encouraged by an inspection of victims, announced to his mother that a grandson had been born to her would be a Caesar. But she only laughed, marvelling that her son should already be in his dotage, while she was still of strong mind.
3 Later, when Vespasian was aedile, Gaius Caesar, incensed at his neglect of his duty of cleaning the streets, ordered that he be covered with mud, which the soldiers accordingly heaped into the bosom of his purple-bordered toga; this some interpreted as an omen that one day in some civil commotion his country, trampled under foot and forsaken, would come under his protection and as it were into his embrace.
4 Once when he was taking breakfast, a stray dog brought in a human hand from the cross-roadsc and dropped it under the table. Again, when he was dining, an ox that was ploughing shook off its yoke, burst into the dining-room, and after scattering the servants, fell at the very feet of Vespasian as he reclined at table, and bowed its neck as if suddenly tired out. A cypress tree, also, on his grandfather’s farm was torn up by the roots, without the agency of any violent storm, and thrown down, and on the following day rose again greener and stronger than before.
5 He dreamed in Greece that the beginning of good fortune for himself and his family would come as soon as Nero had a tooth extracted; and on the next day it came to pass that a physician walked into the hall and showed him a tooth which he had just then taken out.
6 When he consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished however great it might be, would come to pass; and one of his high-born prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, declared most confidently that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then, however, be emperor. 7 Omens were also reported from Rome: Nero in his latter days was admonished in a dream to take the sacred chariot of Jupiter Optimus Maximus from its shrine to the house of Vespasian and from there to the Circus. Not long after this, too, when Galba was on his way to the elections which gave him his second consulship, a statue of the Deified Julius of its own accord turned towards the East; and on the field of Betriacum, before the battle began, two eagles fought in the sight of all, and when one was vanquished, a third came from the direction of the rising sun and drove off the victor.
That “ambiguous prophecy” we read about in Josephus was but one of many signs that were said to have preceded the rise of a new dynasty.
Needless to say such signs were as a rule “discovered” only in hindsight. They were recorded as if they preceded the events, but realistically I think we can say a lot of imaginative hindsight has gone into writing about what “so many” people all observed before the event.
Josephus’s prophecy sits well with the portents described by other historians of his time. It was par for the course to write about “ambiguous oracles” predicting a dramatic change in rulers. Should we privilege Jewish historians as being more likely to “tell nothing but the historical facts” any more than the Roman and Greek ones?
A Prediction by an Exotic Eastern Priest
When Josephus eventually, fearfully, emerged from hiding in his cave he was promptly put in chains and destined to be sent to Nero. Josephus had very good reasons to fear for his fate: the last time he had traveled to see Nero he had nearly drowned in a shipwreck and then only won his case by the good grace of Nero’s wife, but Nero had since had executed her. For Josephus to appear before Nero a second time as a war captive would have meant certain death.
Josephus, we can presume, desperately sought for ways change Vespasian’s mind.
We don’t know what words Josephus used to extricate himself over the year he was held in chains. But whatever happened, whatever arguments were plied, after Vespasian was proclaimed emperor “a prediction by an exotic eastern priest” surely had propaganda value (Mason, p. 125). Vespasian certainly needed all the propaganda he could muster since he was not from one of Rome’s aristocratic families. Vespasian was a master of propaganda — monuments, buildings, coins, a triumph to advertise his worthiness to rule.
Roman generals were not usually permitted a Triumph through Rome for merely suppressing an internal revolt, and that’s all Vespasian and his son Titus had done. They had not conquered a foreign nation but merely put down a provincial revolt. But Vespasian built up his action in Judaea as the equivalent of the crushing of a mighty enemy nation and so deserving of a great Triumph with spoils from the East to demonstrate their worthiness to be the new imperator. The relative lowliness of his family background could in that way be easily overlooked.
Tacitus and Suetonius had Vespasian’s propaganda machine as their historical records and played along — including the valuable pronouncement (among other omens) of a prophecy of his rise from the “mysterious east”.
Mason speculates that it would have been an obvious survival strategy for Josephus, while held prisoner and before Vespasian became emperor, to have appealed to Vespasian as the one with real authority, the “real Caesar”, along with his son.
It would have been win-win: Josephus can be honoured as a true prophet and noble priest of a great people; Vespasian as the divinely ordained heir to the power of Rome.
The Tragic Irony
Prophecies with double meanings are a stock part of tragedy and part of ancient histories. Mason cites the Greek historian Thucydides lamenting this irony:
As Thucydides observes of a polis torn by discord, words take on opposite meanings (3.82.3—6).
When Josephus added to his narrative the ambiguous prophecy of a ruler to come from the east, a prophecy that many Judaeans supposedly mistook to apply to their side of the war, he was adding but one more stock detail to move audiences to feel for their fate.
But their chief inducement to go to war was an equivocal oracle also found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time a man from their country would become monarch of the whole world. This they took to mean the triumph of their own race, and many of their scholars were wildly out in their interpretation. In fact the oracle pointed to the accession of Vespasian; for it was in Judaea he was proclaimed emperor. (Jewish War, VI, 312)
It’s a classic tragic motif. In future posts we will have a look at Steve Mason’s study of the war itself and see how far removed it was from Josephus’s claim (and to some extent Vespasian’s own boast) that it was “the greatest war of all time”.
That such a prophecy was found to have “existed from of old” and applied to Vespasian is nothing unusual.
In real life, however, commanders of invading armies have always received exuberant affirmation from fast-thinking natives, their welcome often being full of providential overtones. “It’s not just our city council that considers you marvellous, Your Excellency; you are the One for whom our people have been waiting!”
Local elites who make such claims are expressing overt loyalty, but more importantly they are asking that their community be spared and protected by the conqueror. In Chapter 6 we shall see a diverse range of poleis rushing to welcome Vespasian and his army before he reaches Galilee, for just such reasons.
Rajak cites the example of Ibn-Khaldun and the Mongolian Tamerlaine, and we may add others.
Napoleon was regarded by Europe’s long-suffering Jews as a Davidic-Messianic liberator (Cheleq Tov), who made real again the biblical Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1-15). He encouraged this.
A century later (October 29, 1898), Kaiser Wilhelm II was exuberantly welcomed in Ottoman Jerusalem, by its Jewish community among others. The first of three arches along his “triumphal procession” was the Jewish one, decked out in silk and carpets with gold letters, even though he came as a self-conscious Crusader who was claiming the city for Christian Germany. An enormous eagle mounted over the Jaffa Gate greeted him as he entered to plant churches and other signs of German culture. Still the legend on the Jewish arch declared in Hebrew and German, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We welcome you from the house of the Lord” — the line from Psalm 118 cited in Jesus’ triumphal entry — as Jewish school-children sang these words. The Kaiser also received a parchment scroll inside a Torah case that read in part: “Be sure, O Kaiser, radiant with Heaven’s noble consecration, that the sons of Judaea also approach you rendering homage, greeting you reverently from their innermost bosom.” An accompanying prayer affirmed God’s choice of the Hohenzollems to rule in righteousness.
And even an old Arab prophecy of the conquest by General Allenby
Not even two decades later (December 11, 1917), however, the British General Edmund Allenby would be similarly welcomed at Jaffa Gate by Jews, Muslims, and Christians – as the city’s redeemer from Ottoman-German rule. His surname invited the transliteration Allah an-nabi (prophet of God) among the Arab population, which British propaganda delighted in exploiting. There was supposedly an old Arab prophecy, recalling the one that Josephus made famous, that a prophet from the West would enter Jerusalem’s Golden Gate when Nile water reached Palestine (cf. Allenby’s pipeline from Egypt). The British government toyed with having Allenby enter via the long-sealed Golden Gate, but drew back from practical complications and the wish to avoid kaiserlich pomp.
Prophecies were part of the tragic landscape. There is always a prophet foretelling what is to be an outcome, doom for some, victory for another, in ancient narratives of tragedy of history. It would not be amiss to exercise caution before building an entire case and historical reconstruction upon one such omen whether found in Tacitus or Suetonius or in Josephus.
Mason, Steve. 2016. A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Josephus, Flavius. 1959. The Jewish War. Edited by Betty Radice and Robert Baldick. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin Classics. Penguin.
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