Book Review on Josephus: The Essential Writings

Josephus: The Essential Writings. Translated by Paul L. Maier

It’s hard to encapsulate fully the significance of this text for serious New Testament Students or for the casual historian who wishes to gain a better understanding of the first century. Paul L. Maier beautifully takes all the major passages, precisely those passages that would concern any conservative evangelical, from Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, to create an emotionally exciting book to read.

Jewish Antiquities is essentially a retelling of the Old Testament narrative that we all have in our Bibles. But, what is special about reading Josephus is that one is reading from the perspective of someone who lived during the first century. So, for the modern reader wouldn’t you like to know how a Jew living in the first century would retell their history and whether or not it would look similar to the Old Testament in your Bible? Well, surprisingly the answer to the latter question is a definitive yes with a few significant and exciting changes. For example, Josephus chooses not to include why Moses was not allowed to enter the promise land. For the Jews, it was embarrassing for them to think that their principal leader in delivering the Ten Commandments and the one who lead the Exodus out of Egypt did not get to enter the promise land because of his disobedience. Consequently, Josephus leaves that account out. Well, why? One can speculate, but it does give the reader the mindset of how many contemporary Jews during the first century choose to think about Moses.

Where I seem to place the most significance in Josephus’ Antiquities is his account of the Intertestamental period. The disparity that exists in people’s minds between the Old and New Testament is the size of the grand canyon, and quite frankly embarrassing. Well, Josephus records it as though it happened just a few months ago. As a historian Josephus was well educated, literate and his telling of the destruction of Babylon to the rise of the Roman Empire is an account that no serious historian can avoid not reading. The details on Alexander the Great alone are unique to Josephus. Furthermore, the passage on Jesus, being one of the most controversial passages in Josephus’s writings, does at least indicate the historicity of the person of Jesus. And that Jesus was a unique person of “extraordinary deeds.”

Concerning Josephus’ second book, The Jewish War it is first and foremost an excellent retelling of history. Paul L. Mair selects for his readers all the major wars that lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and eventually Masada. One cannot help but experience every heart-ripping emotion occurring concurrently when one reads how the blood of the Jews filled the streets in Jerusalem. Or the account of a mother eating her child in desperation for food, or reading of people eating leather shoes and grass. But in defense of home and country, wife and child the Jews were incredible fighters. It is exciting to read how the Jews ingeniously out-thought the Romans and it is also fascinating to read the mind of Titus as Josephus retells it. Sometimes it is easy to assume that because Titus was the one leading the Roman legions against Jerusalem that he was responsible for burning most of the city that he was an evil man. However, according to Josephus Titus was moved deeply with compassion towards the Jews in their dire situation. Titus knew that many of the Jews who wished to desert were being held captive and killed by other Jews who would kill anyone who thought of “serving the Romans,” instead of the one true God. Titus showed himself to be a man of his word, and he provided those who did escape, at the right time, a place of safety. Also, Titus was a man of god. He had no intentions of burning the Temple down, but rather it was an accident that he was heart broken.

Overall, I recommend this text for all readers. I would even assign this to my Sunday school class as a way for them to see, smell, and taste, the first century in a way that I think no other textbook could capture the way Josephus has done.