Another prophecy that Vespasian would become the next emperor

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by Neil Godfrey


We know the account Josephus gives of his telling Vespasian that he would be the next emperor. Less well known is a rabbinic tradition that another prominent rabbi delivered the same prophecy to Vespasian.

When Vespasian came to destroy Jerusalem . . . . Vespasian learned that R. Johanan b. Zakkai was friendly to Cæsar (and so he really was, and confessed it frankly to the leaders of Jerusalem).

When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw that his efforts during several days in succession to win the leaders for peace proved futile, for the leaders did not listen to him, he sent for his disciples, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and said:

“My sons, try to take me out of here. Make me a coffin, and I will sleep in it.”

They did so, and R. Eliezer held the coffin by one end, and R. Joshua held it by the other, and thus carried him at sunset to the gates of Jerusalem. When the gate-keepers asked them whom they had there, they answered:

“A corpse; and you know that a corpse cannot remain in Jerusalem over night.”

They were allowed to go, and they carried him till they came to Vespasian.

There they opened the coffin, and he arose and introduced himself to Vespasian, who said:

“Since thou art the Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, I give thee the privilege to ask a favor of me.”

He answered: “I request nothing but that the city of Jamnia shall be free to me to instruct there my disciples. I will build there a prayer-house, and will perform all the commandments of the Lord.”

Hereupon Vespasian said: “It is well. Thou mayest go thither, and undisturbed carry out the object of thy desire.”

R. Johanan b. Zakkai then asked permission to say something to Vespasian. This having been granted, he said:

“I can assure you that you will become a king.”

“How dost thou know it?”

He answered: “We have a tradition that the Temple will not be delivered to a common man (in the name of the king), but to the king himself.”

As it is written [Is. x. 34]: “And he will cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and the Lebanon shall fall by (means of) a mighty one.” [Elsewhere the Talmud explains that Lebanon means the Temple, and “mighty one” a king.]

It was said that scarcely had a few days elapsed when a messenger came from the city of Rome with the tidings that Cæsar was dead, and the resolution was adopted that Vespasian be his successor.

From Chapters of the Fathers

Vespasian, coming from a non-aristocratic family, made much of the prophecy “from the east” that he was divinely destined to become emperor in his massive propaganda campaign after taking that position. Josephus is not mentioned in the rabbinic writings. Was Josephus the only one to deliver the prophecy to Vespasian? Is the above story true? Did Josephus claim credit for the sayings of another? No answers here.



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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Another prophecy that Vespasian would become the next emperor”

  1. Interestingly, the story contains not only the 1) prophesy and 2) description of an actual lord, arising in Jerusalem. But also 3) thanks to a perceived dead rabbi, somehow rising up from tbe dead.

    Clear sources or offshoots of the c. 60 AD Jesus tale.

    1. Well, at least Vespasian, if not a rabbi, actually DID become head of the vast Roman Empire; or the “world” at the time, for some.

      Maybe Jewish tradition or Christians though, credited Zakkai as now running everything. Praising, crediting, deifying, the messenger Z. Who in fact set up ever-sophistical post -temple, Rabbianic judaismgg. Which implicitly claimed to speak for God, after the priests’ Temple was gone.

      So here we had a Jewish teacher, Rabbi, consigned to a coffin, signifying death. Somehow coming up alive however, outside Jerusalem. To found a new rather Midrashic sophistical center of a new, partly Greco Roman compatible Judaism for the world.

      Hmmm. Reminds us of … Christianity and Jesus.

  2. Neil: thanks for your brilliant work to date.

    It’s so good here in fact, that I want to reference the story, in my writing. Do you have the EXACT reference or link to your above account of Z?

    On the site you link to, I was able to find a very similar account, a summary, to the one you present; but not exactly the very same in every detail.

    Keep up your anazing work!

  3. I think an interesting but totally untrue story.

    “He answered: “We have a tradition that the Temple will not be delivered to a common man (in the name of the king), but to the king himself.”

    Temple was “delivered” to Titus. The “king” story must be a recurring fable of the Jews at the time. Josephus referred to Titus as “king” as well.

    Plus – rather ludicrous story – a Rabbi being presented to the Roman General in a coffin?

    Almost as bad as Cleopatra being presented in a carpet to Julius. Story presented for dramatic effect, but kind of stupid. I would think if it actually happened, Vespasian would say execute this guy, he’s crazy.

    1. Atwill claims that the writers are linking the surrender of Josephus and the Rabbi to show that both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism were created for Vespasian.

      Another ludicrous story from 8ce called: The Avenging Of The Saviour. Set in the time of Tiberius’s rule

      “Let us bow our heads, and give up the keys of the city to the Romans, because God has already given us up to death. And immediately they went up upon the walls of the city, and all cried out with a loud voice, saying: Titus and Vespasian, take the keys of the city, which have been given to you by Messiah, who is called Christ.”

      1. Atwill sounds useful.

        The stories may sound a bit absurd in their details. But in any case, realistically, there were many defeated Jews, who no doubt were eager to bow prominently to their new Roman conquerors, lords, in one way or another.

        And we should note that if such stories were the real foundation of Christianity? That means that Christianity, if it was based on anything at all, was based on something quite different from what Christians have thought. Based on characters who, say, were not named “Jesus” at all; at least in these present examples.

  4. Exactly, we grew up believing the jewish people killed the son of god Jesus. But not according to Josephus; hearken to me, that you may be informed how you fight not only against the Romans, but against God himself.

    Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews or Jewish War or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem (mobi) (Kindle Locations 6599-6600). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

    1. Roman and other emperors, lords, pharaohs, were often regarded by some, including themselves, as gods. So in this example, Jewish rebellion against Vespasian, could be regarded by some, as rebellion against a (the?) god. Certainly their new lord.

  5. The false Nero phenomenon needs to be considered in this context. We know that Jews had a messianic star prophecy (bar Kokhba).

    There was a belief among poor Greeks that Nero would return from the East. Could it be the star prophecy was “planted” among Greeks to prepare for Vespasian’s rise and was mistakenly transposed onto Nero?

    This is one among four mistakes related to a conspiracy to replace the Julio-Claudian dynasty with a Flavian-Herodian dynasty via stoking the Jewish Revolt.

    First: the failure of the Piso conspiracy (yes, I do think Flavius Scaevinus is Vespasian, and it explains why he was in pseudo-exile in the East until the Jewish Revolt gave him an excuse to takeover the legions from Tiberius Alexander).

    Second: the pseudo-Nero rumors, if we assume there was a deliberately promulgation of “Emperor from the East” prophecies years prior to that being the reality for Vespasian.

    Third: The assassination of the Judean Provisional Government by Idumean radicals due to a betrayal at the gates of Jerusalem. Ananus ben Ananus was likely part of the nexus of Herodians with Alexandrian Jews in their control of the temple. The idea was likely to negotiate a settlement with Vespasian which would give him a bloodless victory and allow for certain zealot factions to be eliminated (we see that Ananus had to kill James against Rome’s wishes, but now there would be an excuse for Roman troops to legally eliminate the theological and political rivals of Ananus’s factions).

    Fourth: The eruption of Vesuvius, which killed Drusilla and in my opinion could have killed Berenice. Titus’s promising reign declines after this, which could be explained by guilt over this loss, but at the very least by the challenges of the disaster. Domitian did not continue the relationship with the Alexandrian and Herodian Jews.

    So, what you see is an ongoing conspiracy, that fails multiple times but rallies with plan B. The failure of a conspiracy should be taken as strong evidence of a conspiracy theory, implying that imperfect humans are in fact involved.

    1. Yes, no doubt many informed insiders knew perfectly well that the major players were not gods. As Shakespeare tells us. Those who knew, knew that everyone was fallible.

      So what about our specfic Jewish, rabbinic source here? Is he/it fallible?

      The tale is from the “Tavot”; a possibly 10th century anthology, of allegedly earlier rabbinic tales. Neil’s account of this possibly early analogue or source of the Jesus resurrection tale, is of course, indispensible. Though he offers it, leaving many open questions

      Here we see an allegedly old Jewish story, of a Jewish teacher or rabbi, apparently, almost, rising from the dead. In some ways, that seems 1) Christian. But it 2) seemed in part, some might say, Romanized effort to announce a new lord – Vaspasian – for Jerusalem.

      Given that it is a Jewish man, more or less rising from the dead, and given the ambiguities of who “lord” refers to? Some early Jewish readers or others could’ve jumbled it up. Into a story of a dead rabbi rising from a grave, in Jerusalem. To himself become lord of all. A later, Christian reading?

      A related, slightly similar tale is from Josephus, etc.. Of the Jewish leader, Josephus likewise cooperating with Romans. And then suggesting Jewish cooperation with the Roman lord. A prototype of the Roman Catholic church?

      3) WHEN were the origins of the tale?
      The “Tavot,” from which the story is taken, is mentioned in Wiki, as existing by the 10th century AD. As a summary of earlier Rabbinic traditions. But also as having (Christian?) Biblical concepts.

      So here, tentatively, we are not sure of the age or historical accuracy. The story of the rabbi Z, seems to reflect the similar account by Josephus; both involving Jewish leaders collaborating with Romans, say. And later, by way of the Roman church …?

      So finally, this story of a sly Rabbi slipping out of Jerusalem in a coffin, is how old? How authentic? Possibly it is from an early source, 70 AD. But was it creating – or responding to – Christianity?

      Jesus is usually placed earlier. But? The earliest biblical books (the originals of Paul?) are usually dated 55 AD. But that date is not certain. And revisions of Paul, and other books, could be later; from 70 AD and after.

      So the original story, the rabbi, mentioning Vespasian, COULD have existed in the time of the formation of the New Testament?

      So 1) is this story of rabbi
      Z., part of the origin of Christianity? Or 2) part of a later Rabbinic adaptation to Christianity? A contemorary or predecessor or source for the 3) Josephus story? Or is it even 4) a late, deliberate rabbinic parody of Christanity?

      Hard to say.

      In any case, Jews today consider it as pretty holy. As holy as any tales of post-temple, post 70 AD, rabbinic Judaism, can be. After traditional Judaism largely crashed.

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