Josephus and the Cave


The Galilee is on the itinerary of most Jews and Christians visiting the Holy Land for the first or second time, but newcomers, or even veterans, rarely go to a modest site in the Lower Galilee called Yodfat, or in Greek, Jotapata. Yodfat’s importance is primarily related to the Roman siege of the city which occurred in 67 AD, one year after the betting in of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman legion, yet three years before  the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.

This is one of the many places in Israel (including Masada, Gamla, Jerusalem) which one should not visit without Josephus’ Jewish War in hand. There is less to see there than at other sites, but it was there, in a cave, that the young Joseph son of Matthias, the precocious, aristocratic Jewish general, began the process of becoming Josephus the historian, prophet and theologian.

Jotapata today is marked by many caves and cisterns dating from the first century. There is an especially large cave which is shown to visitors as “The Cave”, that is, the underground cavern in which the formative drama of Josephus’ life was played out. The identification may be fabulous, but the story is not. Josephus himself is our only source for it (Jewish War, Book 3, chapters 341-391), but he has obviously given us some version of the truth. Although his story has been turned against him to incriminate him of the worst kind of treachery, he expected his story to be believed prima facie, and he also expected his account to exonerate him of any blame of betrayal or wrong-doing.

According to that story (which is exciting to read!) say what you will about Josephus, he knew how to write – a woman hiding in the cave betrayed its location to the Romans, who offered the cave’s occupants terms of surrender, which Josephus wanted to accept but his companions refused, preferring suicide. It should be remembered that the preference for suicide over capture was a repeated Jewish reaction to Roman arms at this time: Masada was not the only setting for this gruesome scenario.

In the cave, there ensued a debate, in which Josephus failed to prevail with his arguments, both philosophical and practical, against suicide. He pointed out, among other things, that “with us (Jews) it is ordained that the body of a suicide should be exposed unburied until sunset, although it is thought right to bury even our enemies slain in war”. What is interesting here is that suicide is not unambiguously forbidden in any rabbinic text until several hundred years afterwards. Although Josephus’ assertion is convenient to the argument of his speech, it is not likely that he would invent a Jewish law for the rhetorical occasion; rather he was using information which he thought was generally known to the Jews of his time. Thus he serves as a source of the first order for an early halakha (Jewish law), afterwards abandoned for a time, forbidding suicide.

Back to the story. While Josephus could not prevent their collective self-destruction, he did manage to persuade the other Jews in the cave to accept a procedure whereby they would all kill each other according to lots drawn. Josephus handled the lots, and “whether by fortune or the providence of God”, he wrote, he was one of the last two surviving. No one knows really whether or how Josephus manipulated the lots. There is a problem in modern mathematics called the Josephus Permutation, whereby people standing in a circle are counted by fixed intervals; each time the count lands on someone that person is eliminated, the problem being to calculate where to stand in the circle so that you are the last one standing.

Josephus could not persuade forty people bent on suicide to preserve themselves, but he did persuade the one other surviving person to surrender. He left behind in the cave a grisly scene. Excavations at Jotapata in the 1990s uncovered a mass burial of 30-40 people, assumed to be Josephus’ companions (they were buried at a place different from the cave, apparently). Josephus, as the prized enemy general, was taken to Vespasian in the Roman camp. There he presented himself as a prophet and predicted Vespasian would be emperor – a potentially treasonous statement against the ruling emperor (Nero), but one which gained Josephus special treatment and consideration until Vespasian did in fact become emperor two years later, when he freed his Jewish prisoner from his bonds and granted him relative freedom in the Roman camp.

Josephus might have felt guilty about not dying as a courageous general (note what he says at Jewish War, Book 3, ch. 400, and in his autobiography, chapter 137). Josephus himself says that when the first false reports of his death at Jotapata reached Jerusalem, the city was “filled with prodoundest grief”, but when the truth came out, all were enraged: “Some abused him as a coward, others as a traitor, and throughout the city there was general indignation, and curses were heaped upon his devoted head” (Jewish War 3.435, 439). This from Josephus’ own pen: he thought the charges ridiculous, and recorded them to show this.

Whether or not Josephus manipulated the lots in the cave at Jotapata, whether or not he really did recall prophetic dreams or receive a direct message from God, he did undergo a kind of conversion there. He transformed from a revolutionary leader, risking life and limb against the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire in the belief that God would imminently intervene, as He had for the similarly outnumbered Maccabees, whose force of arms were aided by miracles in pursuit of a similar political aim. In the cave, Josephus came to believe that God’s intention was different in the present occasion, that God in fact sanctioned the Roman Empire, that it was His will that the Jews live peacefully until the Roman Empire came to its end at a later, undetermined time. Josephus overturned his conviction that the apocalypse, in which he believed strongly to the end of his life, was imminent: from his salvation in the cave to his own natural death, he believed that the end of history would not be brought, at least in the near future, by miracle or by armed rebellion. It was to this desperate message that Josephus devoted the last thirty years of his life, writing history on a voluminous scale, trying to sketch out the grand pageant of Jewish history, from Creation to his day, in which God’s hidden intention, for both the present and the future, was revealed.

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