The Curious Case of Joseph ben Matthias
In 67 AD, during the Jewish revolt against Rome, Roman legions under Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian) conquered the Galilean city of Jotapata, the center of resistance for the Jewish armies in Galilee. Taken alive was Joseph ben Matthias, the commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee, a young man of aristocratic lineage and personal friend of Poppea, wife of the reigning Emperor Nero. It was unusual to capture such a leader. Most
Jewish commanders would suicide rather than face the pain and humiliation which Romans were wont to mete out to rebels. In consequence, Vespasian prepared to send this prestigious prisoner to Nero, an Emperor renowned for his merciless pursuit of self-interest[a].
Joseph was in something of a cleft stick. Whether he went to Nero or stayed with the legions, his outlook was torture and execution. Could he have appealed to Poppea for succor? Could he have made ‘a deal’ with the legions? At best he would be a turncoat, traitor to his people and his cause, never to be trusted by either side.
Joseph tells us in his own writings how these events transpired:
However, Vespasian gave strict orders that he should be kept with great caution, as though he would in a very little time send him to Nero.
When Josephus heard him give those orders, he said that he had somewhat in his mind that he would willingly say to himself alone. When therefore they were all ordered to withdraw, excepting Titus and two of their friends, he said, “Thou, O Vespasian, thinkest no more than that thou hast taken Josephus himself captive; but I come to thee as a messenger of greater tidings; for had not I been sent by God to thee, I knew what was the law of the Jews in this case? and how it becomes generals to die. Dost thou send me to Nero? For why? Are Nero’s successors till they come to thee still alive? Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and emperor, thou, and this thy son. Bind me now still faster, and keep me for thyself, for thou, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind; and certainly I deserve to be kept in closer custody than I now am in, in order to be punished, if I rashly affirm any thing of God.” When he had said this, Vespasian at present did not believe him, but supposed that Josephus said this as a cunning trick, in order to his own preservation; but in a little time he was convinced, and believed what he said to be true, God himself erecting his expectations, so as to think of obtaining the empire, and by other signs fore-showing his advancement. He also found Josephus to have spoken truth on other occasions; for one of those friends that were present at that secret conference said to Josephus, “I cannot but wonder how thou couldst not foretell to the people of Jotapata that they should be taken, nor couldst foretell this captivity which hath happened to thyself, unless what thou now sayest be a vain thing, in order to avoid the rage that is risen against thyself.” To which Josephus replied, “I did foretell to the people of Jotapata that they would be taken on the forty-seventh day, and that I should be caught alive by the Romans.” Now when Vespasian had inquired of the captives privately about these predictions, he found them to be true, and then he began to believe those that concerned himself. Yet did he not set Josephus at liberty from his hands, but bestowed on him suits of clothes, and other precious gifts; he treated him also in a very obliging manner, and continued so to do, Titus still joining his interest in the honors that were done him. – Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book III, Chapter viii, § 398 – 408