Josephus – A Plagiarist?

It would seem that not everything Josephus (the historian of the Great Revolt) wrote was his was his own work.  Prof. Lawrence Schiffman puts it this way:

There are some important things to keep in mind about Josephus as a historian. First, he did not in fact author most of what his works preserve. The great bulk of it comes from various sources, including Jewish materials, documentary evidence (some forged), and some of the best-known historians of Antiquity, which he compiled, sometimes even slavishly, ignoring contradictions with his own words or with his other sources. Second, he had a specific ax to grind. He sought to demonstrate to the Jews that life under Rome was not so bad as long as religious freedom was guaranteed. He also wanted to show the Romans that the war had been brought about by a minority of the Jews and had not reflected the attitude of the people at large. This was certainly one of the main functions of his Jewish War, written toward the end of Vespasian’s reign, between 75 and 79 C.E. He also attempted to relate the story of the war as if he had not been among those to blame for its failure. This is especially evident in his Life, a work which cannot be precisely dated. His Antiquities of the Jews, completed in 93 or 94 C.E., is a history of the Jews from earliest times to the end of the first century C.E. This work also has a purpose, to show the hoary antiquity and, hence, legitimacy of the Jews and Judaism within the Greco-Roman world. In his Against Apion, written after Antiquities, the purpose is to respond to anti-Semitic propaganda and to maintain that Jews had not set themselves apart from the human race by their religion, as their enemies alleged, and did not believe the ridiculous things often attributed to them.

If Josephus was compiling other people’s work with a specific purpose in mind, is he a trustworthy source?

According to Shaya Cohen:

Political considerations, self-justification, and apologetic tendencies are not the only factors that make Josephus difficult to use. Like most ancient historians, Josephus was a plagiarist. He freely appropriated the work of others, often without letting his readers know his sources. These sources themselves are often biased. His primary source for his discussion of Herod, for example, was the writing of Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod’s “official,” thus hardly unbiased, historian.

Of course, plagiarism in the ancient world was not considered the crime it is today.  Footnotes had not been invented yet, and readers assumed other sources were being quoted.  Today’s more critical readers read Josephus with the facts in mind: some things Josephus may have copied from others, some he claimed as fact in order to put forward his agenda, and some are historical truths.  The question of which are which will keep scholars busy for years to come.

These excerpts were taken from:

Lawrence Schiffman, Josephus: Historian of the Great Revolt
Shaye Cohen. “Roman Domination: The Jewish Revolt and the Destruction of the Second Temple.” Part V

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