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Steve Mason





Josephus Rejected the Rebellion Against Rome, Why Did He Celebrate Chanukah?





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Steve Mason





Josephus Rejected the Rebellion Against Rome, Why Did He Celebrate Chanukah?








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Josephus Rejected the Rebellion Against Rome, Why Did He Celebrate Chanukah?

The Great Revolt against Rome was rooted in the Hasmonean ideology of Judean independence, yet Josephus, who warned against fighting Rome, still celebrated the Hasmonean military triumph against the Greeks.


Josephus Rejected the Rebellion Against Rome, Why Did He Celebrate Chanukah?

Detail of the relief representing "the spoils of the capture of Jerusalem" adorning the southern pillar of the Titus Arch erected in C. 80 CE. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia

Josephus, Proud Hasmonean Heir

Celebration of the Hasmoneans was ubiquitous in first-century Judea; we need only note the frequency of the Hasmonean names Mattathias, John (Yohanan), Simon, Judah, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Joseph.[1] Likewise, the most popular women’s names, Miriam (with derivatives) and Shalomzion.[2] In commenting on the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, Josephus (Yosef ben Matityahu), the great historian from this period, writes:

Jud. Ant. 14.490 This house was illustrious and distinguished by reason of its ancestry, by the honor of the priesthood, and by the deeds that its progenitors accomplished on behalf of the nation. 14.491 These men forfeited the government, however, because of their civil strife with one another, and handed it to the household of Herod, son of Antipater, who was a commoner of ordinary ancestry—a subject of the kings.[3]

Indeed, from the first paragraph of his first work (Jud. War 1.1–6) to the end of his last (Contra Apion 2.188–193), Josephus celebrates Judea’s priestly aristocracy along with his own priestly identity, both of which he connects with the Hasmoneans. Yet, Josephus was not a direct descendant of the Hasmoneans;[4] his maternal ancestor married into the line.[5] [For a more general introduction to Josephus, see the addendum to this article.]

Celebrating Hasmonean Power

Josephus chooses the Hasmonean expulsion of the Seleucid Greeks from Jerusalem as the starting-point for his compressed pre-war history in his Judean War, where he describes how Judah Maccabee (Judas Maccabaeus) ensured the survival of the people by restoring the holy character of the mother-city (Jud. War 1.19, 32, 39).

Josephus’ later book, Judean Antiquities, expands on the pivotal event:

Jud. Ant. 12:316 Judas called an assembly and said that after many victories, which God had given them, they should go up to Jerusalem, purify the sanctuary, and offer the customary sacrifices.…

Josephus then describes how Judah and his followers celebrated the Temple’s rededication for eight days (Jud. Ant. 12.323), which Judah then establishes as a yearly commemoration that Josephus, along with other Jews, continues to celebrate:

Jud. Ant. 12.324 So great was the pleasure they felt at the renewing of the customs, when after a long period they unexpectedly had the authority to worship again, that they made it a law that also those who came after them should celebrate the restoring with a festival at the sanctuary for eight days. From that day until now we keep this festival, calling it ‘Lights’. We give the festival this name, I suppose, from the circumstance that the authority [to worship] made itself manifest to us beyond our hopes.[6]

For Josephus, purifying the Temple was not the pinnacle of Hasmonean success. That was Judea’s domination over its neighbors.

Hasmonean Conquests

Taking advantage of a Seleucid regime in decay, they steadily conquer the surrounding peoples as far as Lebanon to the north and across the Jordan River eastward. Those living in the conquered territory must adopt Judean law, including male circumcision, or leave (Jud. Ant. Jud. 13.257–258, 318–319, 374). Having come so close to seeing Judean law extinguished, the Hasmoneans succeeded in turning the tables on their hostile neighbors.

The high point of achievement is John Hyrcanus’ three-decade term as leader (135/4–104 B.C.E.). He destroys the cities of Jerusalem’s most persistent antagonists, the Samaritans, and their temple on Mt. Gerizim. To the south and northeast, he overruns Idumea and several Greek cities (Jud. War 1.62–66; Jud. Ant. 13.254–258). According to Josephus, John Hyrcanus was so close to the deity that God permitted him to see the coming downfall of his house, making him the last Judean gifted with prophecy.[7] It is no surprise that Josephus names his eldest son Hyrcanus (Vita 5, 426).[8]

Active and Even Militant Resistance

The Great Revolt against Rome (from 66 C.E.) can be understood as the natural outcome of Judean independence after the Maccabean revolt two hundred years earlier. Scholars trace the “Zealots” of Josephus’ War, who readily kill fellow-Judeans of insufficient zeal, to a freedom movement that was there from the start. It all goes back to 1 Maccabees’ portrait of Mattathias, when he killed a Judean ready to sacrifice as Antiochus demanded, as “zealous for the law” in the spirit of Aaron’s grandson Phineas (Pinchas), who had killed Zimri with a forbidden Midianite woman (1 Macc. 1.26 with Num. 25:1–16).[9] Now part of the Roman Empire, Judeans continued to take inspiration from the Hasmoneans and therefore strove to recreate a free Jewish state. They could not tolerate foreign rule.

This militant or activist approach was rooted in the biblical stories of the conquest of Canaan and the justified killing of idolatrous foreigners along with wayward compatriots. This view foregrounds individuals whom God chooses as instruments of just vengeance, from Moses and Joshua through Phineas, Zimri, King David, and Elijah. Such divine agents use violence as necessary.

1 Maccabees presents the Hasmonean achievement in this vein. The family’s enemies are evil gentiles and the Jewish sinners who join them (1 Macc 1.10–11, 51–52). The dying patriarch, Mattathias, tells his sons that their warrior brother Judah:

1 Macc. 2.66 will be the leader of your army and will fight the war of peoples. 2:67 You will draw to yourselves all doers of the law, and you will exact vengeance for your people. 2:68 Pay back the payback due the gentiles [or nations] and attend to the command of the law!

It is not surprising, then, that at least some of the leaders of the Great Rebellion saw themselves as taking up the mantle of Judah and Mattathias, with the hopes of accomplishing a similar feat in their own times.

Josephus’ Quandary

The great respect Josephus held for the Hasmoneans put him in a complicated position vis-à-vis the political situation in his own times. Living 200 years after the Maccabean Revolt, Josephus lived through the failed rebellion of Judea against Rome, which ended up with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

While Josephus did participate in the rebellion early on (see addendum), he did not support the militants, whom he often calls “robbers” (lēistai). Although he described the humiliations inflicted by some Roman officials in compelling ways, he thought it futile to confront Rome’s legions.

When living in Rome, Josephus composed his first historical work, the 7-volume Judean War,[10] in which he aims to counter the prevailing anti-Judean take on the rebellion. Josephus portrays the war in tragic terms, but he also criticizes those Judeans who clamored for “freedom now!”, painting them as power-seekers whose program means death. Josephus ends his portrayal of the war with Elazar ben Yair’s great speech on Masada, which can be summed up as “We misread God’s will and now we must all die” (7.341–388).

This is Josephus’ way of calling the reader’s attention to the failure of the rebellion, which acted upon the mistaken belief that desire for freedom could somehow translate into actual freedom. For Josephus, the wise understand that optimal freedom to follow the ancestral laws can be achieved by judicious cooperation with foreign rule.

How does Josephus square his negative attitude towards the rebellion against Rome with his lauding of the Maccabean revolt? The answer lies in how Josephus understands Jewish history.

A Quietist Historian

Josephus’ view of history was basically quietist, a passive, non-military policy toward worldly affairs.[11] He saw the rise and fall of powerful nations as a matter reserved for God, and considered fidelity to Moses’s laws the only task for mortals. Such a view can be described as “Danielic”—following the ideology of the book of Daniel that pious behavior in the face of adversity is ultimately rewarded, and that what pious Jews should do is keep the law and wait for divine assistance.

Indeed, the book of Daniel’s influence on Josephus’ thinking was profound, and it shaped his overall world view. In the spirit of Daniel’s prayer (Dan 9.4–19), Josephus declares the lesson of his Antiquities to be that those who observe the laws of Moses flourish in everything, while those who depart from the laws face calamity (Jud. Ant. 1.14, 20).

In this sense, Josephus was close in thinking to 2 Maccabees—though he does not seem to have known this book. The suffering under Antiochus is punishment for the wickedness of prominent Judeans,[12] while Judah’s arrival signals the end of divine punishment for violation of the laws (2 Macc. 8.5 with 6.12–17). All the while, God remains in control of political events. The responsibility of Jews is to observe Torah, even if that comes at the cost of martyrdom.[13]

In contrast, while Josephus knows the more militant 1 Maccabees—which he comes across later in his life (see excursus)—and uses it as a source in his Antiquities, his paraphrase however changing its tone. He drops both the work’s biblical-poetic style and its implication that the whole Hasmonean dynasty was divinely chosen.[14] Moreover, in describing the Hasmonean success, Josephus foregrounds their alliances with Rome and even with the successors of the hated Antiochus IV,[15] painting the Hasmoneans as political realists, like him. In short, Josephus adapted the material from 1 Maccabees to fit with the themes of his own history: Judeans do not presume divine support in war, but focus on observing divine laws.[16]

The quietist view of Daniel, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus can be found already in the biblical promise of reward for observance of Torah and punishment for violation (e.g., Deuteronomy 28), and in the book of Jeremiah, who argues that Judah should remain loyal to Babylon and not rebel.[17] In War, Josephus compares himself with Jeremiah, “who cried out that they had become hateful to God because of their offenses, and would be captured if they did not surrender their city.”[18] Josephus’ portrait of militants as “robbers” who pollute the sacred ground with bloodshed recalls Jeremiah’s accusation:

ירמיה ז:יא הַמְעָרַת פָּרִצִים הָיָה הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שְׁמִי עָלָיו...
Jer 7:11 Surely my house, which is called by my name, has not become a den of robbers?”[19]

For Josephus, then, the sum of Jewish obligation is faithfulness to Torah. God would, as God alone could, take care of foreign powers and determine Israel’s place in relation to them. This view of history allowed Josephus to draw a sharp distinction between the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks, and the Great Revolt against the Romans.

The Difference between the Revolts

In Josephus’ understanding, Antiochus IV was wicked and the Maccabees were righteous, so God gave them power to free Judea from Seleucid yoke. The most righteous of all the Hasmoneans was John Hyrcanus, which explains his great success as ruler of Judea and conqueror of the neighboring provinces.

Although John Hyrcanus’ immediate successors also had some achievements, including annexing the important territories of Galilee and Perea, from Josephus’ perspective the family were already beginning to lose divine favor because of their sins. As the piety of the Hasmoneans declined, God eventually sent Rome to conquer Judea and then, as Judean behavior worsened, destroyed Jerusalem via Rome as a punishment for crimes committed in the sacred precinct.

At the same time, it is important to Josephus to emphasize that his opposition to rebellion against Rome did not stem from cowardice. A central theme across his corpus is the uniquely tough Judean character, which was much maligned in Roman portraits of the Flavian victory. Josephus takes every opportunity to portray himself and his compatriots as, man for man, contemptuous of death and impervious to suffering for the ancestral laws. They are real men.

The Religious Realism of Josephus

Josephus takes pride in all that the Hasmoneans achieved, from their purification of the Temple to their conquest of Jerusalem’s neighbors—a display of masculine military prowess—while avoiding any suggestion that political independence is feasible or desirable now. In his retelling, back in the time of the Maccabees, Judea was in existential peril. The greatest generation rose to the occasion as God enabled them.

Later, the Judeans squandered their gift through violation of the laws. God has now placed the Romans in power, and their rule has been conspicuously good for Jerusalem (Jud. War 1.11). Josephus puts illuminating lines in the mouth of King Agrippa II, emphasizing the difference between bravery and obstinacy:

Jud. War 2.356 Yet the one who has once been subdued and then resists is not a freedom-lover but an obstinate slave. 2.357 Back at the time when Pompey was setting foot in the region, it was necessary to do everything possible to avoid admitting the Romans. But our [Hasmonean] forebears and their kings—much better positioned than you in resources, in bodies, and in souls—did not hold out against a small fraction of the Roman force. And you, who have inherited the art of submission as a tradition, who are so inferior in your affairs to those who first submitted, you are setting yourselves against the whole imperium Romanum?

Here we meet the cold steel of Josephus’ realist outlook.

Hindsight: The Stronger Prevail because God Wills It

The way to tell whom God favors, Josephus says, is by testing. It is a law of nature, from God, that the stronger will prevail and the weaker must comply. At the risk of oversimplifying a theological position, Josephus opposed fighting against the reigning power unless it was clear that God was on the Judeans’ side. But how can one know God’s will? To some extent, one needs hindsight.

The Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucid army time and again, thus it is clear that God was on their side. This same family, however, was conquered by the Romans, and thus it should be clear that Roman rule was God’s will. Josephus spells this out in his speech to the rebels during the Roman siege—i.e., Josephus is reporting (or imagining) what he said in the past—citing the rump Hasmoneans’ inability to resist Rome:

Jud. War 5.365–368 Yes, it was noble to fight for freedom—at the beginning. But after once submitting and then yielding for a long time, to try then to shake off the yoke is to court death, not to be a freedom-lover.… The same inevitable law holds among wild animals as among humans: ‘Yield to those who are more powerful,’ and ‘Control belongs to those who are at the top in weapons.’

This is why your forefathers [the last Hasmoneans]—who were your betters in souls and bodies and every other respect—yielded to the Romans, something they could never have tolerated if they had not realized that God was with them [the Romans].

Josephus does not admire Judean valor only in the abstract. He sees death-defying courage as the hallmark of the Judean national character. He is a huge admirer of the brave Hasmoneans, not only for having restored the Temple service but also for exercising military power.

At the same time, Josephus rejects any notion that the Hasmonean legacy implies a reflexive resistance to all foreign rule. To provoke Rome’s immense power, which God has established, and which experience has shown to be vastly more powerful than Judea’s, is not for him the meaning of Chanukah.


Dating Chanukah in Josephus: Daniel vs. 1 Maccabees

The book of 1 Maccabees describes how the altar was defiled on the 25th of Kislev, in the year 167 B.C.E.[20] Three years later, after a successful battle, Judah Maccabee and his followers purify the Temple and rededicate it on the third anniversary of its desecration.[21] When retelling the story in Judean Antiquities, Josephus uses this same timeline:

Jud. Ant 12.319 And on the 25th of the month Kislev … they ignited the lights on the lampstand and burned incense on that altar. They laid bread on the table and a whole burnt offering on the new sacrificial altar. 12:320 As it happened, these things occurred on the very same day, after three years, on which their holy worship had abruptly fallen into a vile and profane mode. For after the sanctuary had been made desolate by Antiochus, it had remained in such a state for three years.[22]

This dating contradicts what Josephus wrote in his earlier Judean War, according to which Antiochus IV had “plundered the temple and stopped the continuity of the daily sacrificial offerings for three years and six months” (Jud. War 1.32). The dating there follows the scheme in the book of Daniel. Its predictions (chs. 7–12), composed during the Antiochian persecution,[23] state repeatedly that the (unnamed) Greeks will be stopped by a miraculous divine intervention at the end of three and a half years. [24]

In chapter 9, Daniel is taught the symbolic meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem will be destroyed for 70 years. After a long penitential prayer (vv. 4–19),[25] an angel appears to inform Daniel that the length of this period is really שָׁבֻעִים שִׁבְעִים “seventy weeks of years” (v. 24), meaning 490 years. After briefly explaining some things that will occur in that period, Daniel is told that towards the end, a destructive leader will take over (=Antiochus IV):

דניאל ט:כז וְהִגְבִּיר בְּרִית לָרַבִּים שָׁבוּעַ אֶחָד וַחֲצִי הַשָּׁבוּעַ יַשְׁבִּית זֶבַח וּמִנְחָה וְעַל כְּנַף שִׁקּוּצִים מְשֹׁמֵם וְעַד כָּלָה וְנֶחֱרָצָה תִּתַּךְ עַל שֹׁמֵם.
Dan 9:27 During one week he will make a firm covenant with many. For half a week he will put a stop to the sacrifice and the meal offering. At the corner [of the altar] will be an appalling abomination until the decreed destruction will be poured down upon the appalling thing.”

For reasons of verisimilitude, the predictions are all written in coded language, but it seems clear that, as a week equals seven years, half a week is three and a half years.[26]

Between his writing of the War and Antiquities, Josephus came across 1 Maccabees, and adopted some of its historical details, but he continues to interpret the momentous event in light of what he understood as Daniel’s prediction:

Jud. Ant. 12:322 Now the desolation of the sanctuary came about according to the prophecy of Daniel, 408 years earlier, for he had told in detail that the Macedonians [i.e., Seleucids] would cause its undoing! [27]

Although Josephus does not mention Daniel in The Judean War, Daniel’s assumption that God alone can make changes in political power undergirds the book.[28]


Meet Josephus, The Jewish Historian

Josephus was born in Jerusalem in 37 C.E., to a well-connected priestly family. Jerusalem’s leaders thought him impressive enough to send him, aged twenty-six, on a journey by sea to the Emperor Nero’s court. His mission was to free fellow-priests who had languished for some years awaiting a hearing (Vita 13).[29] Somehow, he succeeded.

When Josephus returned to Jerusalem a year or two later (65–66 C.E.), he found the city in turmoil, with some people clamoring for secession from Rome. He plausibly claims to have been appalled (Vita 17–19). So he worked with members of the priestly and Pharisaic elite to manage the passions that had overheated in his absence. They tried to show understanding for the people’s emotions while steering them to a safer harbor (Vita 22).

Josephus’ Judean War, which he would pen a decade later back in Rome, describes what made this fail: Nero. Born the same year as Josephus, this young emperor had created a vicious circle of trouble by his early twenties. Dire financial straits, provincial revolts (as in Britain), and worsening relations with the Senate reinforced each other. They produced conspiracies, which intensified Nero’s fear and his reprisal measures.

Nero sent pliable lower officials, freedmen and equestrians, to raid temple treasuries throughout the empire, and to inform on obstructive senators. Jerusalem’s Temple treasury was especially alluring, as the only sanctuary to which Jews from both the Roman and the Parthian empires sent funds. The official he sent to Judea, Gessius Florus, had auxiliary soldiers recruited from Samaria and Caesarea, long-time enemies of Jerusalem, as his muscle. They were only too keen to raid the temple and kill with impunity any Judeans who resisted.

In Nero’s later years, Jerusalem’s residents found established avenues of redress blocked. Until then, the senatorial legate in the north of Syria had maintained excellent relations with Jerusalem and checked regional hostilities. He was aided by Jerusalem’s priestly elite and by the royal heirs of King Herod, now King Agrippa II and his sister Berenice, who spent much of their time in Rome.[30]

The emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius had also ensured Jerusalem’s security, and sometimes even its regional primacy. But under Nero, King Agrippa II and the senatorial legate lost influence with the emperor and neither could dare to act against his agent, Gessius Florus, the 7th Roman procurator of Judea from 64 until 66 C.E.

Some Judeans, feeling vulnerable, first fought against the Samarian auxiliary, and then attacked the Jerusalem garrison, bringing the reluctant legate, now Cestius Gallus, to Jerusalem with a legionary (=professional Roman) force, accompanied by Agrippa II.[31] After Judeans successfully barred Roman entry to Jerusalem, and attacked Roman forces in the rock-cut pass at Beit-Horon, Nero sent the 57-year-old general, Vespasian, to subdue Judah.[32]

If we leave aside speculations about Josephus’ moral character and stay with what seems clear, the rest of his career looks like this. After the ambush of Cestius, Jerusalem’s leader sent him to Galilee with two priestly colleagues (winter 66–67 C.E). Like the priests and Pharisees, he was seeking an honorable way out of the crisis. He found Galilee mainly quiet.

When Vespasian arrived in Syria, the Jewish capital Sepphoris even dispatched emissaries to welcome him. Josephus retreated to lakeside Tiberias, not on Vespasian’s itinerary. When he saw, however, that the small family town of Iotapata (Yodfat) was in peril, he put himself in harm’s way to try to save it by negotiation, then by prolonged defense. He was the only prominent figure in the war, as far as we know, who moved from a place of safety into harm’s way. When his efforts unsurprisingly failed, he surrendered.

Avoiding rendition to Nero, he remained Vespasian’s prisoner until the latter decided to bid for imperial power, as the fourth successor to Nero. He freed Josephus, who accompanied Vespasian’s son Titus through the siege of Jerusalem, witnessed its destruction of Jerusalem from a distance, and travelled with Titus to Rome in time for the Flavian triumph. There he lived the remainder of his life, penning his historical works.

When we use the word “history” for any writing about the past, we miss the point that Josephus is the only surviving Jewish author from antiquity who consciously wrote history.[33] Josephus did not believe history to be a secure route to knowledge. In his view, Judea’s ancient records were reliable because they came via prophets (Contra Apion 1.37–43). He undertook history, a foreign pursuit to Jews, because it was the proper vehicle in his day for investigating recent times (Jud. War 1.13–16).


December 22, 2022


Last Updated

March 20, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Steve Mason is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures in the Department of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Origins in the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. His M.A. is from Canada’s McMaster University, his Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Before moving to Europe, Mason spent most of his career at Toronto’s York University, lately as Canada Research Chair in Greco-Roman Cultural Interaction. A fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Mason edits Brill’s international series, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, the first full commentary to Josephus’ works, to which he has also contributed three volumes (War 2 and 4 and Life of Josephus). His other books include Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees (1991), Josephus and the New Testament (2003), Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity: Methods and Categories (2009), Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea (2016), A History of the Jewish War, AD 66–74 (2016), and Jews and Christians in the Roman World: From Historical Method to Cases (in press).