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.
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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