Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, not Vespasian as Josephus claims
313 CE to 325 CE
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For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.
In this passage, Eusebius discusses a claim made by Josephus in his Jewish War VI.310 relating to a Jewish oracle about a prophesied world ruler. In the interest of contextualisation, a brief discussion of this passage in Josephus’s own text and its background will first be helpful. In the first Jewish-Roman war, or the Great Revolt (66-73 CE), Josephus had initially fought as an opponent of the Romans, somewhat reluctantly leading a section of the Judean forces from Galilee. When the city of Jotapata eventually fell to the forces led by the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus (both future emperors) after a six-week siege in 67 CE, Josephus and his companions were held up in a cave/water cistern. They decided upon a suicide pact, which Josephus managed to survive, and subsequently surrendered to Vespasian (Jewish War III.387 on the siege of Jotapata, see, for instance, Mordechai Aviam, “Yodefat/Jotapata”). Now a prisoner of Vespasian, Josephus chose to cast himself in a prophetic role, and appealed to an ancient Jewish Messianic oracle which had predicted a world ruler coming out of Judea. This prophecy, he claimed, clearly referred to Vespasian, who would become the destined leader of the Roman world.
Vespasian’s interest was piqued, and he took Josephus as a slave and interpreter, eventually freeing him in 69 CE after he became emperor, at which point Josephus took the emperor’s family name, Flavius (Jewish War IV.622). It is worth also noting that the Roman historian Suetonius records that Josephus prophesied while a prisoner of Vespasian that he would soon be set free by his captor, who would himself go on to become the emperor (Vespasian V.6; see also Tacitus, Histories V.13). Suetonius mentions this along with a series of other portents which had led Vespasian to believe that his hopes of becoming imperial ruler would soon be realised. Josephus’s appeal to the oracle saw him become part of a prophetic tradition which Suetonius claims was embraced by Vespasian. However, Robert Gnuse and Tessa Rajak, along with others, argue that this was largely just Josephus’s way of justifying having surrendered to the Romans, as he could argue that God had chosen him to voice his divine judgement on the Jews and the subsequent rule of Vespasian (for additional discussion and bibliography on this issue, particularly in relation to how scholars have used it to interpret Josephus’s self-identity, see Gnuse, Dreams and Dream Reports, p. 136-142; Rajak, Josephus, p. 18-19).
Regardless of Josephus’s motives, however, as far as Eusebius is concerned his statement is not only false, but somewhat logically flawed. In the Christian author’s opinion, this Messianic prophecy much more clearly refers to Christ, to whom the promise in Psalm 2:8 of the Gentiles (ἔθνη, ethnē) becoming his inheritance can also be applied (see Matthew 28:19, Jesus’s commissioning of his disciples to continue to spread God’s word to the Gentiles). The justification that Eusebius gives here is that despite the fact that the Romans had crushed the Jewish forces, and did indeed dominate vast swathes of land, their rule did not currently extend to the entire (ἅπας, hapas) world. Indeed, Roman subjugation had thus far only affected certain peoples, and was essentially limited, despite the fact that imperial propaganda claimed exactly the opposite. Emperors were considered lords of the entire oikoumenè, and this message was forwarded on coins via the image of a globe. On the contrary, both Christ’s rule, granted to him by God, and his message (Psalm 19:4) extend to “the ends of the earth,” making him the much more logical fulfiller of the Messianic prophecy. Earlier authors such as Origen (see Against Celsus II.30) had argued that the gathering of various nations together under imperial rule had actually been a useful tool in aiding the spreading of the Christian message across the world. The author of the Commentary on Daniel IV.9 and the Apology of Melito of Sardis, preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History IV.26.7, also argue along similar lines. There was a clear sense among early Christian authors, then, that Rome’s expansion was a positive force for the Gospel’s universal message. However, while this may be the case, in the present passage Eusebius is keen to assert that the Messianic prophecies of the Jewish tradition are fulfilled only in God’s anointed one, and not in any earthly leader, no matter how grand their dreams of world domination. For Eusebius here, there is a rivalry of universalism between the Roman empire and early Christianity. However, in his later writings, after Constantine the Great had accepted Christianity, Eusebius describes the Roman empire and Christianity as “two roots of blessing” from the same source, God, which will bring about the end of disorder and unbelief. Eusebius, as other early Christian writers, argued that the incarnation of Christ during the establishment of the Roman monarchy was God’s divine plan to subdue polytheism, by establishing an earthly model of singular divine rulership (On Christ’s Sepulchre XVI.4).