Josephus and the 613

Josephus and the 613

JosephusAlmost everyone in the field of scholarship is familiar with Josephus. His historical writings are most valuable for a multitude of scholarly endeavors. Few scholars have undertaken the time to embark on the daunting task of reading Josephus from cover to cover. Regardless, opinions of whom and what Josephus was all about vary from scholar to scholar.

Recent scholarship is beginning to take a new view of Josephus. In the past Josephus has been cast in a negative light. More recent scholarship is beginning to cast Josephus in a more favorable light. This is because they are viewing Josephus from the world that he actually lived in rather than try to contemporize his ideals. Nothing is more important to the accurate exegesis of a text that knowing the current events of the author. Without the works and writings of Josephus much data concerning the historical events of the first century would have been lost. Likewise, the ideals, cultural data and beliefs would be lost. We have learned from Josephus of the varied sects and diversity of Jewish groups that existed during his life time.

We shall not try to elaborate on this point with any depth at this juncture. Our focal point is Josephus’ relation to the idea of the mitzvot (613 commandments).

Because Josephus was a Jew transplanted to Rome we have often believe that he defected from the faith, so to speak. However, a look at his writings as a whole contradicts this idea. Some scholars have suggested that Josephus actually tried to paint Judaism in a favorable light so that the Beit haMikdash (Temple) could be immediately be rebuilt. As we well know, this never happened. However, it does bring us to the place where we realize that Josephus presented Judaism in a favorable light to Rome. Recent scholarship suggests that Josephus was faithful to the ideals of Judaism and that he longed for the restoration of Judaism to the structure that existed just before the Roman destruction. As a result Josephus argues the civility of Judaism in contrast to other systems. Likewise, Josephus suggests that the revolt was the result of a few extremists rather than the mentality of the general populace. This may have been a political tactic if his motive was actually the liberation of Jews and the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael. However, this does not suggest that Josephus believed that Rome had offered intolerable provocation.

Josephus himself tells us that he had studied the varied schools of philosophical thought in Eretz Yisrael in his early years. Therefore, Josephus was well educated in the lore of Jewish practice. Josephus paints the portrait of Pharisaic dominance during his time as well as the later part of the first century. Scholarship has suggested that Josephus himself was a Pharisee. This objectionable since Josephus states that in his early years he had studied the varied schools and rejected the ways of the Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees. It was the “way of Bannus” that Josephus had eventually chosen as his preferred practice. However, we may well conclude that the Pharisaic way of life dominated Eretz Yisrael. This simple fact causes us to realize that the country was dominated by the Torah m’Sinai (Written Torah) as well as the Torah b’al pey (Oral Torah). Even though Josephus may have personally preferred the “way of Bannus” the Pharisaic way of life was preferable for the countries welfare. This is because the Pharisaic way of life promoted a theocratic livelihood.

Few people (even scholars) are familiar with the idea that it was Josephus who coined the phrase “Theocracy.” This Greek word is a compound word stemming from two Greek words. The first word is “Theos” which most people recognize as the Greek word for G-d. The second word is the word “krates.” This word is not as well known in common circles. “Krates” suggests world rule and domination.

The Greek word “Theocracy” is a direct reference to the rule of G-d. Ancient Israel was the model of a working “theocracy.”

Josephus in his varied writings gives purpose to the mitzvot (613) and their halachic interpretation by the Rabbis.

Against Apion 2: 164 -167 164 Now, there are innumerable differences in the particular customs and laws that are among all mankind, which a man may briefly reduce under the following heads:–Some legislators have permitted their governments to be under monarchies, others put them under oligarchies, and others under a republican form; 165 but our legislator had no regard to any of these forms, but he ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a Theocracy, by ascribing the authority and the power to God, 166 and by persuading all the people to have a regard to him, as the author of all the good things that were enjoyed either in common by all mankind, or by each one in particular, and of all that they themselves obtained by praying to him in their greatest difficulties. He informed them that it was impossible to escape God’s observation, even in any of our outward actions, or in any of our inward thoughts. 167 Moreover, he represented God as unbegotten, and immutable, through all eternity, superior to all mortal conceptions in pulchritude; and, though known to us by his power, yet unknown to us as to his essence.

Here Josephus suggests monotheism as a means of life for all mankind. This agrees with the Prophetic view that HaShem would rule the earth as the waters cover the sea. Likewise his view is theocratic in that he believes that it is HaShem who will rule the entire earth.

Why was the Torah given?

Josephus believes in a life of piety. Scholarship suggests that Bannus was a monk-like figure that practiced a lifestyle much Yochannan hamitvil (John the Baptist). As a result piety was a desirable system for civil government. This system is the system of the Torah. Therefore, Josephus suggests the Torah as a code of conduct.

Against Apion 2:146-147 146 for I suppose it will there become evident that the laws we have given us are disposed after the best manner for the advancement of piety, for mutual communion with one another, for a general love of mankind, as also for justice, and for sustaining labours with fortitude, and for a contempt of death; 147 and I beg of those who shall peruse this writing of mine, to read it without partiality; for it is not my purpose to write an encomium upon ourselves, but I shall esteem this as a most just apology for us, and taken from those our laws, according to which we lead our lives, against the many and the lying objections that have been made against us.

Here the code of conduct is the foundation for a theocratic society. The Torah promotes philanthropy and piety in its system of government. Josephus views life through the lens of a Torah based lifestyle and a Theocratic government.

Josephus does not actually attribute the success of the Romans in the “War” to the Romans. He believes that the fall of Eretz Yisrael is due to Divine justice being worked out on the people of G-d. His plea is much like that of Jeremiah, Daniel and the other prophets. Josephus wants true repentance so the Diaspora will not take place and Eretz Yisrael can be restored.


Josephus establishes the fundamentals for a Theocracy in his writings.

Against Apion 2:185 185 And where shall we find a better or more righteous constitution than ours, while this makes us esteem God to be the governor of the universe, and permits the priests in general to be the administrators of the principal affairs, and withal intrusts the government over the other priests to the chief high priest himself!

Josephus advocated a Theocracy as G-d in absolute control with the system established by the Torah.

Societal Structure

The Romans had prided themselves as the model society.  Josephus demonstrates the need for Torah based and centered lifestyle as a model for mankind.

Against Apion 2:179-181 179 And this very thing it is that principally creates such a wonderful agreement of minds among us all; for this entire agreement of ours in all our notions concerning God, and our having no difference in our course of life and manners, procures among us the most excellent concord of these our manners that is anywhere among mankind; 180 for no other people but we Jews have avoided all discourses about God that anyway contradict one another, which yet are frequent among other nations; and this is true, not only among ordinary persons, according as everyone is affected, but some of the philosophers have been insolent enough to indulge such contradictions, while some of them have undertaken to use such words as entirely take away the nature of God, as others of them have taken away his providence over mankind. 181 Nor can anyone perceive among us any difference in the conduct of our lives, but all our works are common to us all. We have one sort of discourse concerning God, which is conformable to our law, and affirms that he sees all things; as also, we have but one way of speaking concerning the conduct of our lives, that all other things ought to have piety for their end; and this anyone may hear from our women and servants themselves.

Josephus suggests unity under the authority of G-d as a way of life. The code establishing the “conduct of our lives” is the Torah. It results in piety, philanthropy and unity.


The Roman word is known for rulers who were controlled by vice.

Historical evidence suggests that the Romans provoked the Jews into revolt. While Josephus blames the revolt on the minority he still suggests Roman provocation.

What tool can be used to circumvent vice?

Josephus has the answer for Jews and Romans alike. The answer is simple, Torah!

Against Apion 2:111-117 111 This, therefore, is the utmost degree of impiety, and a voluntary lie, in order to delude those who will not examine the truth of matters. Whereas, such unspeakable mischiefs as are above related, have been occasioned by such calumnies that are raised upon us. 112 Nay, this miracle or piety derides us further, and adds the following pretended facts to his former fable; for be says that this man related how, “while the Jews were once in a long war with the Idumeans, there came a man out of one of the cities of the Idumeans, who had worshipped Apollo there. This man, whose name is said to have been Zabidus, came to the Jews, and promised that he would deliver Apollo, the god of Dora, into their hands, and that he would come to our temple, if they would all come up with him, 113 and bring the whole multitude of the Jews with them; that Zabidus made for himself a certain wooden instrument, and put it around him, and set three rows of lamps therein, and walked after such a manner, that he appeared to those who stood a great way off from him to be a kind of star, walking upon the earth: 114 that the Jews were terribly frightened at so surprising an appearance, and stood very quiet at a distance; and that Zabidus, while they continued so very quiet, went into the holy house and carried off that golden head of an ass, (for so facetiously does he write,) and then went his way back again to Dora in great haste.” 115 And say you so, sir! as I may reply; then does Apion load the ass, (that is), himself, and lays on him a burden of fooleries and lies; for he writes of places that have no being, and not knowing the cities he speaks of, he changes their location; 116 for Idumea borders upon our country, and is near to Gaza, in which there is no such city as Dora, although there is, it is true, a city named Dora in Phoenicia, near Mount Carmel, but it is four days’ journey from Idumea. {m} 117 Now, then, why does this man accuse us because we have not gods in common with other nations?–if our fathers were so easily prevailed upon to have Apollo come to them, and thought they saw him walking upon the earth, and the stars with him;

Against Apion 2:176-178 176 And, indeed, the greatest part of mankind are so far from living according to their own laws, that they hardly know them; but when they have sinned, they learn from others that they have transgressed the law. 177 Those also who are in the highest and principal posts of the government, confess they are not acquainted with those laws, and are obliged to take such persons for their assessors in public administrations as profess to have skill in those laws; 178 but for our people, if anyone does but ask anyone of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of any thing, and of our having them, as it were, engraved on our souls. Our transgressors of them are but few; and it is impossible, when any do offend, to escape punishment.

Josephus demonstrates the simple fact that many nations are not familiar with their own rules of conduct. In contrast Judaism is so well versed in the rules of conduct that the people know the Torah and its mitzvot better than they know their name.


The virtuous standard of life in Eretz Yisrael is not just followed by a select few. Virtue and a Torah based lifestyle is the way of life for the whole country.

Against Apion 2:232-233 232 Now, as for ourselves, I venture to say, that no one can tell of so many; nay, not of more than one or two that have betrayed our laws, no, not out of fear of death itself; I do not mean such an easy death as happens in battles, but that which comes with bodily torments, and seems to be the severest kind of death of all others. 233 Now, I think those who have conquered us have put us to such deaths, not out of their hatred to us when they had subdued us, but rather out of their desire of seeing a surprising sight, which is this, whether there are such men in the world who believe that no evil is to them so great as to be compelled to do or to speak anything contrary to their own laws.

Josephus suggests that to see the death of the Jew devoted to Torah is an awesome sight. In other words, the Jew would rather die with the Shema on his lips than abandon and forsake the Torah and its mitzvot.

Against Apion 2:271-275 71 Now, with us, it is a capital crime, if anyone does thus abuse even a brute beast; and as for us, neither has the fear of our governors, nor a desire of following what other nations have in so great esteem, been able to draw us from our own laws; 272 nor have we exerted our courage in raising up wars to increase our wealth, but only for the observation of our laws; and when we with patience bear other losses, yet when any persons would compel us to break our laws, then it is that we choose to go to war, though it be beyond our ability to pursue it, and bear the greatest calamities to the last with much fortitude; 273 and, indeed, what reason can there be why we should desire to imitate the laws of other nations, while we see they are not observed by their own legislators? And why do not the Lacedemonians think of abolishing that form of their government which suffers them not to associate with any others, as well as their contempt of matrimony? And why do not the Eleans and Thebans abolish that unnatural and impudent lust, which makes them lie with males? 274 For they will not show a sufficient sign of their repentance of what they of old thought to be very excellent, and very advantageous in their practices, unless they entirely avoid all such actions for the time to come: 275 nay, such things are inserted into the body of their laws, and had once such a power among the Greeks, that they ascribed these sodomitical practices to the gods themselves, as a part of their good character; and, indeed, it was according to the same manner that the gods married their own sisters. This the Greeks contrived as an apology for their own absurd and unnatural pleasures.

Here is the Jewish reason for war. War results when the Jew is forced to abandon the Torah and forsake its mitzvot. A Torah based lifestyle is more important than life itself. Judaism refuses to embrace other codes of conduct because they are powerless to produce a societal structure equivalent to Judaism. This is witnessed by even the legislators who should be models of their code of conduct. Rulers being given to vice, lack virtue.

Gentiles and the Torah

Is the Torah for Jews alone?

Josephus suggests that the common view is that the Torah should be kept by those who seek to have a relationship with HaShem. While other systems are mutually exclusive Judaism embraces the foreigner. However, the embrace of the foreigner in no way allows for the abandonment of the Torah. As a matter of fact, it suggests the Torah as the universal standard for all humanity.

Against Apion 2:209-210 209 It will be also worth our while to see what equity our legislator would have us exercise in our intercourse with strangers; for it will there appear that he made the best provision he possibly could, both that we should not dissolve our own constitution, nor show any envious mind toward those who would cultivate a friendship with us. 210 Accordingly, our legislator admits all those who have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own nation, but to those who would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

Against Apion 2:257-261 257 Nay, Plato principally imitated our legislator in this point, that he enjoined his citizens to have he main regard to this precept: “That everyone of them should learn their laws accurately.” He also ordained that they should not admit of foreigners intermixing with their own people at random; and, provided that the commonwealth should keep itself pure, and consist of such only as persevered in their own laws. 258 Apollonius Molo did no way consider this, when he made it one branch of his accusation against us, that we do not admit such as have different notions about God, nor will we have fellowship with those who choose to observe a way of living different from ourselves; 259 yet is not this method peculiar to us, but common to all other men; not among the ordinary Greeks only, but among such of those Greeks as are of the greatest reputation among them. Moreover, the Lacedemonians continued in their way of expelling foreigners, and would not, indeed, give leave to their own people to travel abroad, as suspecting that those two things would introduce a dissolution of their own laws: 260 and, perhaps, there may be some reason to blame the rigid severity of the Lacedemonians, for they bestowed the privilege of their city on no foreigners, nor indeed would give leave to them to stay among them: 261 whereas we, though we do not think fit to imitate other institutions, yet do we willingly admit of those who desire to partake of ours, which I think I may reckon to be a plain indication of our humanity, and at the same time of our magnanimity also.

What did Josephus think of the Torah, 613 and the mitzvot? He absolutely believed that it was the only true system worth emulation and practice. He desired the restoration of all that was lost with the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. Only with the Beit haMikdash could the whole of Torah life be lived. If the Jews were allows to live by the standards of the Torah they would be at peace with their neighbors. If their neighbors would embrace the Torah and its standards the world could live in peace. If the world would embrace the ideals and practices of the Torah we would live in a Theocracy.