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The Irrelevance of Josephus

In trying to referee the conflicts between Pharisees and Sadducees, which we murkily discern in our Bible, we have the usual problems. After more than two thousand years, a lot of detail tends to be forgotten.

But even before entering into an account of who the Pharisees were, I should say that I don’t like them. It isn’t a strong dislike, such as I entertain for Communists and Nazis. But nevertheless, in my reading of Gospels and Acts, I get the impression that, apart from individuals, Pharisees are generally disliked; and there are probably reasons for it.

They are a branch of the Jews, who have formed themselves into a smaller nation, of sorts. Politics leads to this over time. Draw a line between two territories that were both inwardly and outwardly the same; put the two under separate though identical administrations, and in very little time you may tell them apart. In a little more time, they will be fighting.

Titus Flavius Josephus was, I would guess, a Pharisee, and our chief extra-Biblical historian of the time of Christ. An aristocratic writer, from the Hasmonean family, he is a man of hard-acquired loyalties, ultimately to the Roman cause of Vespasian and Titus. He is a good and bad literary witness to the time of Christ, and the major figures of the New Testament, at a high political level – Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate. Also, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, crashing into history where they don’t seem to belong.

But Josephus’ religious loyalties are with the Jews. His conception of history is the Jewish conception, and so his attitudes to life and futurity are not always plain to us, except insofar as we ourselves are Jews.


His habit of assisting the Romans, and his rise to the Roman governorship of Galilee as a young man, makes him – despite having led a revolt – the “ideal worst” commentator on the fate of the people with whom he was most intimately related (as anyone would be who proves essentially a traitor). This is a pity, because the Pharisees are becoming in some respects the most interesting Jewish tribe, and founders of Rabbinical Judaism.

We pass into the meat of Josephus’ complex story, which we must inevitably read through, as well as straightforwardly. Like many of history’s most fascinating characters, he reports visions and revelations to excuse his defection to the Roman side, and make it sound noble or at least natural. How many of the most influential figures became so by selling out their own side? And how little we may understand them against the strange backdrop of their life and times?

Let alone understand the religious developments, whether they be gathered in the fall of Jerusalem, and subsequent struggles of the Jewish people, or less probably, the Crucifixion of Christ and subsequent history of the world? For what seems least important emerges as the most important thing, and the true valid course of divine agency.

For God may have sent both Vespasian and Christ, yet they are not of equal importance – as perhaps anyone can see. The first vindicates the order of history; the second is very God, through the Sonship. By this standard, the great Roman Emperor can be seen to play only a bit part, as the truth of history is unrolling.

And I go back to something still smaller when I consider the role of the Pharisees in this, who seem to have had a bigger part in simple anecdotes within the Gospels, than in their noblest (or most ignoble) role in historical events. And whatever that is (a fine opportunity for scholarship), it will be subject for confusion by students and experts until very near the end of time.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Pharisees, as about the Sadducees their characteristic enemies, is that they were despised. By adopting the prejudices of the Sadducees, we can begin to understand this. The ancient world can be imagined as modern.

The Sadducees are “elitist.” They are from the wealthier classes, and dominate the investment and merchant trades. They are well-educated, and they speak Greek – as did all the elite classes in the eastern Roman Empire. They might individually carry suspicion of the “foreign” Latin-speaking Romans in their breasts. But by instinct they are all pro-Roman, for that is how you get ahead in the “new world order.” where the Roman is the global culture, and you’d have to be a hick to resist it.

The Sadducees, in our modern jargon, are “cool,” and other factions, from Pharisees down to bitter clingers like the Essenes, are “uncool.” They live in what we might call “flyover country” (though of course at this time only the angels are flying over). In the city – Jerusalem and increasingly Alexandria and elsewhere – even the Jewish priests are speaking Greek to each other, wherever they come from.

Pharisees, at the time of the New Testament, are despised, and by using our imagination we can guess why this should be so. Jesus Christ, one of those oddities who apparently has time for Pharisees, and does not assume that any human is worthless – a man who has taken the trouble to wander in the outback – is an exception to this. But we should hardly be surprised to find him “non-conforming.”

He, Jesus, does not take things at face value. He esteems men because he does not take them as the world takes them. The world gives them little value indeed when it takes them at comparative worth. He, Jesus, comes from another place, where the assessment of “value” is different from the way we assess things down here.

This is how Jesus himself, in the best secular account of his ministry, can appear only as an incidental, as a walk-on character who quickly walks away, having achieved essentially nothing.

Except that he has permanently altered everything that happens.


*Image: 1st-century bust thought to be Josephus [Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.