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The Scientific Treatment of Prophecy

October 31st, 2009

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

Giulio Romano, The Triumph of Titus and Vespasian

Giulio Romano, The Triumph of Titus and Vespasian

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

So Joseph claimed to have allowed himself to be captured because he was sent to Vespasian with a message from God, a prophecy of things to come. Was this the truth, or some fable concocted by Joseph for the purpose of self-preservation? That Vespasian came to believe in Joseph as a prophet is evident:

(1.) From the chain cutting ceremony described in B.J. IV.10.7 (622-629). Here, upon ascension to Imperial glory as foretold by Joseph, Vespasian demonstrates that Joseph was unjustly imprisoned by cutting his chains to pieces, rather than just releasing him. Wars of the Jews was published during the reign of Vespasian around 75 AD. Josephus could not have published this anecdote concerning the Emperor’s clemency and friendship without the Emperor’s tacit approval. With the exception of a few men granted mercy at Joseph’s behest, the Romans appear to have executed other Jews complicate in the revolt.

(2.) From Vespasian’s subsequent treatment of Joseph. Vespasian not only freed Joseph, but he rewarded him with Roman citizenship, gave him an apartment in his own house, a wife, an imperial pension, grants of land, and lifelong friendship (Vita 76 (423-430)). Joseph ben Matthias adopted his benefactor’s name, as was Roman custom, and is known to us through his many extant writings as Flavius Josephus.

Vespasian might have preserved the life of a traitor in order to keep a promise; but no traitor would be invited into the Emperor’s own house and shown lifelong favour as a trusted friend. An Emperor needs not surround himself with those whom he despises to achieve his ends. By his actions, Vespasian demonstrates that he held Joseph in high esteem, and that he was in accord with Joseph’s claims to be a prophet. Why else would he have thus accepted a known rebel?

(3.) Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian, each continued to show Josephus favour and friendship during their Emperorships (Vita 76 (422-430)). Once again, Josephus’ publication of these claims during the rein of Domitian (93 AD) went unchallenged by an Emperor known for intolerance.

(4.) Roman historians writing subsequent to Flavian rule accepted the prophecy of Josephus as an established fact. See Suetonius, Vespasian V.vi & Dio, Rom. Hist. LXVI.i. This view, perpetuated by disinterested Romans, is further corroboration of Josephus’ written claims of having received Imperial favour. Suetonius was born around the time of Vespasian’s ascension, and was therefore contemporary to Josephus’ writing career.

According to Josephus’ account, he was directed by God to not kill himself, even though any good Jewish commander was so obligated by law and duty. Rather, he was directed to serve as the messenger of God to Vespasian. And the message that he brought, during the reign of Nero, was that Vespasian was to be Caesar, and that his son Titus would assume the throne after him.

Since Vespasian and Titus were both present during the prophecy as presented above, it is safe to assume that the prediction was made shortly after the fall of Jotapata in 67 AD, as represented by Josephus. Otherwise one or both of these august rulers would have failed to endorse Josephus’ account. A prophecy soon after capture explains why Josephus was not sent to Nero as originally planned; the Flavian commanders needed time to contemplate the credentials of the prophet. The change in plans had to have occurred early, before Nero had been informed of the possibility of a prisoner. Even an imagined insult to this dread sovereign would have been fraught with dire consequences.

So Josephus appears to have made the prediction in 67 AD; but what are the odds that Josephus could have shrewdly guessed that Vespasian was destined for the purple? After all, the event came to fruition in 69 AD, only a few years after the prediction?

(1.) After Nero’s overthrow and assisted suicide in 68 AD, Rome went through a period of uncertainty and upheaval commonly referred to as, ‘the year of the four Caesars’. The first of these princeps was Servius Sulpicius Galba, who had been governor of Hispania. Vespasian immediately dispatched his son Titus to Rome to pay homage to the new Emperor (Tacitus, Histories II.i). So it seems that Vespasian did not see himself as an obvious contender even after the death of Nero.

(2.) Suetonius tells us that the very reason Nero chose Vespasian for the Judaean campaign was his relative obscurity. Nero needed a General who could win auspicious victories without becoming a threat to the throne. See Suetonius, Vespasian IV.v.

(3.) The year of the four Caesars saw in rapid succession the ascension to Imperial glory of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and then Vespasian. Nero was Caesar when Josephus made the prediction. What are the odds of picking a final victor in so diverse a field? Think of any modern state where power has changed hands so many times in so short a time, and consider whether you could have made the call.

(4.) Josephus not only predicted that Vespasian would become Caesar, but he predicted that Titus would follow. Vespasian was the tenth Emperor of Rome, if you start with Julius Caesar. For over a hundred years, these men had ruled the Roman Empire. And yet, Vespasian was the first Caesar to ever place his son on the throne! For us, this is a piece of historic trivia. But to those in the Roman world it was an intrinsic part of their existence. Who would predict, during these tumultuous times, that Vespasian would not only rise from obscurity to the princeps, but that he would be the first to secure the position for his son?

(5.) Finally, we know that Joseph was on close, personal terms with the Empress, Poppea. If he was a scoundrel, bent on deception, does it not seem more likely that he would have wanted to go to Rome where he had such an advocate? In a previous matter involving accusations against certain Jewish priests, Poppea had intervened with the Emperor on Josephus’ behalf (Vita 3 (16)); would she not do so again? Could he not say that he had agreed to lead Jewish armies under duress; and that he had made peace with Rome at the earliest opportunity? I submit that an Imperial favourite would play these cards, if opportunism was his motive.

In summary, Joseph predicted Vespasian’s ascension two years before the fact, and Titus’ twelve years before the fact. Vespasian and his two sons clearly believed that Joseph had delivered this message prophetically, and showed him considerable honour accordingly. The details of Joseph’s predictions were improbable at best, and were certainly not the guesses of a political opportunist. Joseph ‘made his bed’ with this obscure Roman Flavian gens, previously unknown to him, when he was already a court favourite. The most logical explanation for these events is that Josephus experienced a supernatural revelation of otherwise unknowable future occurrence, an experience which Josephus believed to be prophecy emanating from God.

Given the foregoing, I submit for your consideration the notion that we have uncovered scientific evidence of actual prophecy; and that the failure to commonly recognize this phenomenon may be more due to an a priori dismissal of the evidence based upon preconceived biases (i.e. worldview), than to weakness of data. I further submit that such evidence for the existence of prophecy is de facto evidence for the existence of God, although I will leave expansion of this theme for a later essay.

[a] Nero’s mother Agrippina poisoned his stepfather Claudius to secure his throne. Nero quipped that (poisoned) mushrooms must be the food of the God’s, for by eating them Claudius became a God. Nero was involved with assassination of his step-brother Britannicus, also by poison, to eliminate a potential rival. Nero ordered the execution of his own mother when she stood in his way. Nero’s wife, Poppea, had been the wife of Otho, his close friend.  And he is credited by most Roman historians as having starting for nefarious purposes the fire which consumed much of Rome with great loss of life in 64 AD. He later blamed this fire on the Christian population of Rome, which led to the execution of “vast multitudes” of Christians according to the Roman Tacitus and the Christian Clement, both contemporaries of the event.

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