Josephus in The War of the Jews (Book 3 - 8:9) records a story of how he meets Vespasian, tells him that he will become ruler, and Titus will take over his position. Vespasian, although sceptical at first eventually accepts this as a divine message and in the end Josephus enjoys certain privileges due to this. This is apparently referred to as Josephus' prophecy.

This story eerily parallels the gemara in Gittin on the bottom of 56a where Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakai sneaks out of the besieged Jerusalem, predicts to Vespasian his promotion and is given his three requests in return.

I am wondering what to make of this. To assume both stories independent and true seems extremely unlikely. Besides the logistics, I doubt Vespasian would feel so impressed and indebted to the second bearer of these tidings. To assume they are both complete fabrications seems extremely unlikely as well. So the two choices left are: someone is misrepresenting what happened, and either way Josephus loses. If he lied and replaced his own self in the place of Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakai, then he has proven himself the liar many have accused him of being. If it was Chazzal that chose to rewrite history, we are left to assume that they so despised Josephus that they couldn't relate even one good story concerning him. Is there any parallel to this type of editing by Chazzal? Am I missing something obvious? Any insights appreciated.

  • Is the story seen in Yerushalmi?
    – rosenjcb
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 14:38
  • @rosenjcb if it does, i am not aware of it. It does appear with slight variation in avos drabi nasson ch 4 but that wouldn't prove anything
    – user6591
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 14:55
  • Bavli felt privileged to tell stories with exaggerations since all that mattered is that the halachic discussions are translated correctly. This is the thesis of "The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud" at least.
    – rosenjcb
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 16:09
  • 3
    I personally think that Josephus was the original version of the story-- after all, however exaggerated his works are, the Flavians - Vespasian/Titus/Domitian - were all his patrons- he even took their name and became Flavius Josephus! I don't think he could lie about THAT and have his works survive their time - his books and he would have been eliminated.
    – Gary
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 4:32
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    "To assume they are both complete fabrications seems extremely unlikely as well". Really? Why? I can understand why you might have a religious motivation to believe one of them true, but I see no reason as to why, historically, either one of them has to be.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 6:30

6 Answers 6


I would argue that both stories are true, and that this is not even particularly surprising.

The Roman historian, Suetonius, mentions the incident with Josephus fairly early in his biography of Vespasian in the context of a host of similar omens and dreams that predicted that Vespasian was destined to become Caesar.

What this tells us is that not only was Vespasian obsessed with this idea, but that this was a fairly well known fact about him.

The fact that two politically savvy individuals (i.e. R' Yochanan Ben Zakai and Josephus) both manipulated Vespasian by appealing to a well-known soft spot in his ego should not be surprising.

  • After reading that especially #6 I can't really agree with you, but this is definitely interesting, so +1.
    – user6591
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 18:55
  • Interesting take. But if this was well known, then it's hard to believe that Vespasian would have kept falling for the same trick/prophecy. Interestingly, in Avot Dr. Nathan Rabbi Y. Ben Zakkai predicts Vespasian's rise to power only after he promises him Yavneh. So the prophecy is not offered in order to find favor in the eyes of the emperor. It is only mentioned afterward. In that version, Ribaz finds favor in the eyes of the emperor because he is a Roman sympathizer and is against the rebels/baryonim. It is not related at all to his prophetic powers.
    – Bach
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 19:52
  • Check out this very thorough article on the topic, 541f9ccd-f519-4d28-9447-ec62b28a3d58.filesusr.com/ugd/… the author brings all the different opinions on the relationship between Josephus' story and the Ribaz tradition, he compares all the different versions of the story in the chazalic sources, and offers a lot of insights. He concludes that while the bavli's version was most likely influenced from Josephus, the kernel of the story had arisen independently.
    – Bach
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 19:52

The questioner's objection to both accounts being true is that Vespasian would not have been indebted to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai if Josephus had already predicted his rise to power.

Of course, it wasn't necessarily a function of "being indebted". What was needed was that Vespasian be sufficiently impressed, and thus be merciful.

It's therefore worth pointing out several differences between the stories, which might show how RYBZ was more impressive than Josephus:

a) Josephus was captured and facing death. With nothing to lose, he predicted to a man who was, at the very least, known to be in position to become emperor. The worst that could happen would be that he would get a few months extra to live. That isn't that impressive, at least to my modern ears...

RYBZ was not in imminent danger, and may well have survived the fall of the city. If he put himself into clear danger, it was a sign of greater foreknowledge/wisdom.

b) RYBZ did not "predict". He stated that he was, at that very moment, Emperor. Even Vespasian himself was unaware of that. Contrast to Josephus, who predicted a reasonably likely event.

  • stam according to the medrash the messenger with the news came a few days later
    – levi cohen
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 21:34

This is entirely opinion, but perhaps Josephus bent the truth in order to protect the identity of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai so people would not know that he escaped Jerusalem.


Versions of Ben Zakkai stories appear in Avot d'Rabbi Natan (in both the A and B versions), BT Gittin 56a and Lamentations Rabbah 1:5. The stories recount inter alia Vespasian's siege of Jerusalem, the egress of Ben Zakkai with R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and Ben Zakkai's prediction that Vespasian would become emperor.

I believe that the Josephus story is probably authentic, or at least, more likely to be authentic than the Ben Zakkai stories, based on several points:

  • Josephus wrote his works during a time when many people–Jews and Romans–who lived through the First Revolt were alive. It is hard to imagine that Josephus would lie about such an event, when even a Flavian could read his Vita. Indeed, Contra Apionem 1:51–52 (cf. Vita 361–362) records:

So confident was I of [my narrative's] veracity that I presumed to take as my witnesses, before all others, the commanders-in-chief in the war, Vespasian and Titus. They were the first to whom I presented my volumes, copies being afterwards given to many Romans who had taken part in the campaign. Others I sold to a large number of my compatriots, persons well versed in Greek learning, among whom were Julius Archelaus, the most venerable Herod, and the most admirable King Agrippa himself. All these bore testimony to my scrupulous safeguarding of the truth, and they were not the men to conceal their sentiments or keep silence had I, through ignorance or partiality, distorted or omitted any of the facts.

  • It was Titus, not Vespasian, who laid siege to Jerusalem. Vespasian was made emperor in 68 CE, about two years before the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • Other near-contemporary historians echo Josephus' story (Suetonius Vespasian 5:6; Dio 65:1).

See also the extensive literature review of the subject by Feldman in Josephus and Modern Scholarship. Like Feldman, I have not read Schäfer's article (Die Flucht Johanan b. Zakkais aus Jerusalem und die Gründung des 'Lehrhauses' in Jabne in ANRW 2.19.2 (1979): 43–101), but it may also be quite enlightening.

  • 1
    you said that because vespasian became emperor in 68 ce this story couldnt happen however thats only a problem according to those ppl that hold the churben happened in 70 ce but according to many jewish sources it happened in 68 ce - eliminating your question
    – levi cohen
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 21:38
  • @levicohen Just about no actual scholarship is of this opinion. It is hard to reconcile this date with archaeological and historical sources. There are Roman artifacts dating the end of the war to 70 CE, for example.
    – Argon
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 23:50

I found this by chance. A piece by Amram Tropper adressing the story of Raban Yochana Ben Zakai download the pdf link at http://www.torahmusings.com/2005/08/rabban-yohanan-ben-zakkai/

His theory concerning the question here is that Chazzal were trying to present Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakai as a Jeremiah like figure. This main point begins on pg 140, pg 8 of the pdf.

The questions he was addressing were why Chazzal chose to present Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakai in what he thinks is an unflattering light, possibly even dangerous considering the authorities.

What I take out of it is the imaginative way he takes the portrayal of the story of Raban Yochanan Ben Zakkai. At the same time he applies this same imaginative portrayal to Josephus about himself.

Here's some excerpts.

In broad strokes, the comparison between Jeremiah’s activities at the time of the destruction of the First Temple as reported in the Book of Jeremiah, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s actions as described in the literary kernel of our legend, can be articulated as follows. A Jewish leader living in besieged Jerusalem opposes the war, foresees the city’s destruction and therefore calls upon the Jews to surrender. His appeals, however, remain unheeded and the city’s situation deteriorates. When he realizes that the destruction of the city is looming, he seeks to flee the city but runs into difficulties with the Jewish guards at the city gates who oppose his exiting the city. In the long run, his anti-war stance serves him well and when he comes to the attention of the enemy leader, he is rewarded for his support. This sketch of a leader’s actions at the end of the Temple period is quite remarkable because it applies in equal measure to both Jeremiah and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.

The notion that the rabbis would have portrayed Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai as a second Jeremiah presupposes that they interpreted the destruction of the Second Temple in light of the destruction of the First and indeed, scholars have noted that the rabbis did interpret in this manner.

This interpretative approach is perhaps most apparent in the manner that Lamentations Rabbah interprets Lamentations, a book composed in reference to the destruction of the First Temple, to refer to the destruction of the Second Temple, as well.

Moreover, the rabbis were not the only Jews to project a Jeremiah-like figure into the Second Temple context; Josephus also did so. By stressing his own prophetic capabilities, his exhortations to the Jews to surrender, and the subsequent assaults on his person, Josephus portrayed himself as Jeremiah reborn.

Returning to our question, how the rabbis could risk portraying Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai as a deserter and perhaps even as a traitor, as “a friend of Caesar,” it appears that the answer lies with Jeremiah.

Although it is likely that the story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s escape was influenced, at least in part, by some version of Josephus’ escape, the rabbis’ willingness to incorporate such a problematic account into their own foundation legend should not be explained as a careless incorporation of foreign materials.

Rather, the emotional distance and accommodating stance to Rome of amoraic times made it possible to tell Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s escape story, while the paradigmatic understanding of the destruction of the Temple in conjunction with Jeremiah’s account of the first destruction, made it desirable.

Despite the many differences between the careers and historical contexts of Jeremiah the prophet and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai the sage, Jeremiah’s narrative heavily influenced the portrayal of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s journey from Jerusalem to Yavneh.

Perhaps this escape story, when all is said and done, risks appearing unflattering, but, for the rabbis, it was the type of story one told about the destruction of the Temple.

  • 1
    I'm not sure i understood this.
    – Scimonster
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 3:36
  • @Shimonster which part?
    – user6591
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 3:42
  • @user6591 I would appreciate greatly if you could try adding line breaks to your post. I think that might make it easier to read and understand.
    – LN6595
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 4:37
  • @Ln6595 I kept meaning to edit this. Better? Maybe Cnsersmoit will like it too.
    – user6591
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 13:09
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    @Danny its not definitive, but I did end off the question with an any insights request. I see in this thesis someone willing to assume the story presented in the gemara is not a matter of fact historical account, the author also takes Josephus' account as somewhat embellished as well.
    – user6591
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 15:12

The problem with the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakki is the timing. He declares Vespasian is Caesar before word reaches him. This makes it sound as if Vespasian was surprised by his "appointment." But actually he was declared Emperor by the troops in Syria and Egypt which he commanded. It is unlikely that this was a "spontaneous" decision but was one Vespasian worked to achieve. Vespasian was named Caesar by the soldiers fighting in Judea. Also, this vote took place in July of 69 upon which time Vespasian immediately left to secure this position (which required him to defeat Vitellius' troops. History says he was not actually accepted as Caesar until December of 69. My point is that the concept that Vespasian was surprised by what ben Zakkai said seems, at best, an exaggeration.
Additionally, 69 is referred to in Roman history as teh Year of the Four Caesars because after Nero died one general after another claimed the throne only to be ousted by the next. These generals were closer to Rome than Vesasian. It therefore seems likely that Vespasian watched with interest as each general failed until he realized that his forces in Judaea were the most dangerous in the Empire and proceeded accordingly.

It is also interesting that ben Zakkai recognized that HaShem had abandoned the Jews in this war and therefore felt it was not an act of treason to accept HaShem's will and acknowledge the Jews could not win. Josephus gives a similar explanation for why he went over the side of the Romans. So why is one a traitor and the second not?

Finally, if Vespasian gave Rabbi Yochanan three wishes (or even just one) why did he not wish for the Temple to remain standing and that the only the rebels be punished? We are told thousands of Jews were made slaves. How could Rebi allow that to happen if he had chance to prevent that part of the tragedy?

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    "why did he not wish for the Temple to remain standing" The Gemara already asked that question...
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 1:12
  • 2
    This does not appear to actually answer to original question. Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 1:26

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