The first-century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus, originally named Mattityahu ben Yoseph, was an aristocrat from a priestly family. He fought against Rome, but was taken prisoner and served as an interpreter and liaison for the Romans. He observed and recorded the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and left us an invaluable trove of writing about ancient times and peoples. But one of his goals in writing was to elevate the image of Jewish people in a post-war Roman empire. In his work entitled “Against Apion” he offers a vehement defense of the Jewish approach to life and values.
This excerpt is a fascinating example of Josephus’s first-century reasoning as he makes his case before his Roman readers. Consider the similarities between Josephus’s values and the apostle Paul’s discussions of good and moral behavior in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor 15:27-28, Heb 2:1-10, Rom 1:19-26, Rom 12:1-8)
22. (184) But while we are ourselves persuaded that our law was made agreeably to the will of God, it would be impious for us not to observe the same, for what is there in it that anybody would change! and what can be invented better! or what can we take out of other people’s laws that will exceed it! Perhaps some would have the entire settlement of our government altered. (185) And where shall we find a better or more righteous constitution than ours, while this makes us esteem God to be the governor of the universe, and permits the priests in general to be the administrators of the principal affairs, and withal entrusts the government over the other priests to the chief high priest himself! (186) which priests our legislator, at their first appointment, did not advance to that dignity for their riches, or any abundance of other possessions, or any plenty they had as the gifts of fortune; but he entrusted the principal management of divine worship to those that exceeded others in an ability to persuade men, and in prudence of conduct. (187) These men had the main care of the law and of the other parts of the people’s conduct committed to them; for they were the priests who were ordained to be the inspectors of all, and the judges in doubtful cases, and the punishers of those that were condemned to suffer punishment. 23. (188) What form of government then can be more holy than this! what more worthy kind of worship can be paid to God than we pay, where the entire body of the people are prepared for religion, where an extraordinary degree of care is required in the priests, and where the whole polity is so ordered as if it were a certain religious solemnity!
(189) For what things foreigners, when they solemnize such festivals, are not able to observe for a few days’ time, and call them Mysteries and Sacred Ceremonies, we observe with great pleasure and an unshaken resolution during our whole lives. (190) What are the things then that we are commanded or forbidden?—They are simply and easily known. The first command is concerning God, and affirms that God contains all things, and is a being every way perfect and happy, self-sufficient, and supplying all other beings; the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things. He is manifest in his works and benefits, and more conspicuous than any other being whatsoever, but as to his form and magnitude, he is most obscure. (191) All materials, let them be ever so costly, are unworthy to compose an image for him; and all arts are unartful to express the notion we ought to have of him. We can neither see nor think of anything like him, nor is it agreeable to piety to form a resemblance of him. (192) We see his works, the light, the heaven, the earth, the sun and the moon, the waters, the generations of animals, the productions of fruits. These things hath God made, not with hands, nor with labor, nor as wanting the assistance of any to cooperate with him; but as his will resolved they should be made and be good also, they were made, and became good immediately. All men ought to follow this Being, and to worship him in the exercise of virtue; for this way of worship of God is the most holy of all others.
24. (193) There ought also to be but one temple for one God; for likeness is the constant foundation of agreement. This temple ought to be common to all men, because he is the common God of all men. His priests are to be continually about his worship, over whom he that is the first by his birth is to be their ruler perpetually. (194) His business must be to offer sacrifices to God, together with those priests that are joined with him, to see that the laws be observed, to determine controversies, and to punish those that are convicted of injustice; while he that does not submit to him shall be subject to the same punishment, as if he had been guilty of impiety towards God himself. (195) When we offer sacrifices to him we do it not in order to surfeit ourselves, or to be drunken; for such excesses are against the will of God, and would be an occasion of injuries and of luxury: but by keeping ourselves sober, orderly, and ready for our other occupations, and being more temperate than others. (196) And for our duty at the sacrifices themselves, we ought in the first place to pray for the common welfare of all, and after that our own; for we are made for fellowship one with another; and he who prefers the common good before what is peculiar to himself, is above all acceptable to God. (197) And let our prayers and supplications be made humbly to God, not [so much] that he would give us what is good (for he hath already given that of his own accord, and hath proposed the same publicly to all), as that we may duly receive it, and when we have received it, may preserve it. (198) Now the law has appointed several purifications at our sacrifices, whereby we are cleansed after a funeral after what sometimes happens to us in bed, and after accompanying with our wives, and upon many other occasions, too long now to set down. And this is our doctrine concerning God and his worship, and is the same that the law appoints for our practice.
25. (199) But then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if anyone do that, death is his punishment. (200) It also commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but demand her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her away by the nearness of his kindred; (201) for, saith the Scripture, “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.” Let her, therefore, be obedient to him; not so, that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband. A husband, therefore, is to lie only with his wife whom he hath married; but to have to do with another man’s wife is a wicked thing; which, if any one venture upon, death is inevitably his punishment: no more can he avoid the same who forces a virgin betrothed to another man, or entices another man’s wife. (202) The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean. (203) Moreover, the law enjoins, that after the man and wife have lain together in a regular way, they shall bathe themselves; for there is a defilement contracted thereby, both in soul and body, as if they had gone into another country; for indeed the soul, by being united to the body, is subject to miseries, and is not freed therefrom again but by death; on which account the law requires this purification to be entirely performed….
28. (206) The law ordains also, that parents should be honored immediately after God himself, and delivers that son who does not requite them for the benefits he hath received from them, but is deficient on any such occasion, to be stoned. It also says, that the young men should pay due respect to every elder, since God is the eldest of all beings… 29. (209) It will be also worth our while to see what equity our legislator would have us exercise in our intercourse with strangers; for it will thence appear that he made the best provision he possibly could, both that we should not dissolve our own constitution, nor show any envious mind towards those that would cultivate a friendship with us. (210) Accordingly our legislator admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us. 30. (211) However, there are other things which our legislator ordained for us beforehand, which of necessity we ought to do in common to all men; as to afford fire, and water, and food to such as want it; to show them the roads; and not to let anyone lie unburied. He also would have us treat those that are esteemed our enemies with moderation: (212) for he doth not allow us to set their country on fire, nor permit us to cut down those trees that bear fruit: nay, farther, he forbids us to spoil those that have been slain in war. He hath also provided for such as are taken captive, that they may not be injured, and especially that the women may not be abused. (213) Indeed he hath taught us gentleness and humanity so effectually, that he hath not despised the care of brute beasts, by permitting no other than a regular use of them, and forbidding any other; and if any of them come to our houses, like supplicants, we are forbidden to slay them: nor may we kill the dams, together with their young ones; but we are obliged, even in an enemy’s country, to spare and not kill those creatures that labor for mankind. (214) Thus hath our lawgiver contrived to teach us an equitable conduct every way, by using us to such laws as instruct us therein; while at the same time he hath ordained, that such as break these laws should be punished, without the allowance of any excuse whatsoever. (Against Apion 2.183–214)