Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The General, the Rabbi, and the Roman

I just came across something interesting.

In his “War of the Jews,” Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.

This reminded me of something I had learned in school.

The gemara (Gittin 56a-b) tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.

 The two stories are strikingly similar. It’s hard to swallow either as historically accurate, but Josephus’s story was written by the man himself, only decades after the event. The gemara was written centuries later. Which seems more likely:
  1.  Nearly identical stories happened to Josephus and to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkia – and in both cases Vespasian was surprised by the prediction, apparently having forgotten whichever came first.
  2.  Josephus attributed R’ Yochanan ben Zakkei’s story to himself.
  3. Josephus’s story, having been written down, was in circulation in the Roman world, and particularly in the Jewish Roman world. Passed around orally by the mostly illiterate public, at some point, the story was misattributed to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, and this version was canonized by the gemara.

I’m voting for #3.


  1. Point #3 sounds likely, but it's also possible that both events could have happened. It could also be that Josephus might have taken credit for it himself, which also would make sense as he was the one writing the history, so why not give himself some undue credit? In the end, we don't know for sure what happened.

    This is not the first time that Josephus recorded something against what the Talmud says. I remember once reading something written by Josephus regarding Alexander's stopover to Jerusalem where he met the Kohen Gadol. Josephus (supposedly?) dismissed that by writing that Alexander, based on his own written records, went straight down the left hand coast, around from where Jaffa is today downward. Therefore, by that account Alexander could not have stopped over in Jerusalem.

    Then again, he could have done so but realized that it wasn't worth his while to record it. We'll never really know, but it's important to present as many points of view as possible as any of them could be true.

  2. R avigdor miller writes in eternal nation on page308 that Josephus attributed RYBZ story to himself also on page89 he acuses him of changing shimon hatzdik story

    1. Well, of course he does. R' Miller takes it as given that the gemara is true, so it has to be that Josephus is the one that's wrong.

      When Josephus wrote, Vespasian himself or his son Titus was on the Roman throne. When the gemara was written, Vespasian had been dead for centuries. Which version is more likely to have been mistaken?