Josephus and Jewish Orthodoxy

The approach to Josephus in modern Jewish orthodoxy has not been monolithic, and there were two main strands. Early commentators had frequently cited the Book of Yosippon, which they identified with the works of Josephus, and thus, from the viewpoint of traditional society, Josephus was held in high esteem. On the other hand, the actions of Josephus – who collaborated with the Romans, published books in Greek, and became an integral part of the Hellenistic-Roman culture – contradict Orthodox values, which eschew cultural collaboration with external elements outside Orthodox society.

One solution was the approach of the Ḥafetz Ḥayyim and the Ḥazon Ish, two major late nineteenth and early twentieth-century authorities. Their commitment to the tradition of the early commentators, the Rishonim, who relied upon the Book of Yosippon, led them to think well of Josephus. The Ḥafetz Ḥayyim and the Ḥazon Ish do not engage in historical scholarship, rather they view history through the lens of tradition, allowing them to accept that Josephus is Yosippon, who is considered ‘one of our own’. A more modern approach, represented among others by Halevy and Jawitz, involved a critical examination of Josephus’s actual writings on the basis of accepted principles of the academic historical discipline. In such cases the historical discipline could supersede ideological considerations: Josephus was valued as a source but the judgement of him was overall negative.

Sariel, E., ‘Historion Bireshut HaTorah: Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi’s Historiographic Approach (1847-1914)’, Moreshet Yisrael 4 (2007): 70-74.

JRA entry contributed by Eliezer Sariel