Comparing the Parallel Historical Accounts of the Talmud and Josephus
Several historical accounts found in the Talmud are paralleled by accounts recorded earlier in the works of Josephus, the first-century Roman Jewish historian. While the rabbinic sages of the Talmud (Hazal) surely had historical traditions of their own, they likely had traditions from sources that were based on Josephus as well. Thus, when it is clear that a Talmudic account is based upon Josephus, the divergences of the Talmudic version from Josephus’s version may highlight that which Hazal embellished in order to convey a specific point or theme. This essay will explore two examples of this story-parallelism, and theorize as to the deeper messages that Hazal embedded into their own accounts.
Story 1: The War of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus
When Alexander Yannai, one of the last Hasmonean kings, died in 76 B.C.E., his widow Salome Alexandra succeeded him and took control of Judea. After she died in 67 B.C.E., her two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought one another for the throne. Hyrcanus besieged Jerusalem, locking Aristobulus and his supporters inside the city. During this stalemate, both brothers appealed to the Romans, who had been conquering land nearby in Syria. When the Roman general Pompey sided with Hyrcanus, Aristobulus’s supporters refused to submit to the decision. As a result, Pompey stormed Jerusalem, fought the remaining Jews, and raided the Temple. His subsequent victory inaugurated Roman control over Judea, which eventually led to the termination of the Hasmonean dynasty and had a significantly negative impact on the Jews in Judea for years to come.
Josephus records a particular occurrence that happened during Hyrcanus’s siege of Aristobulus in Jerusalem:
While the temple priests and Aristobulus were besieged, the festival of Passover came, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen outside would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmae for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given… 
Hyrcanus’s men deceived Aristobulus’s men by not giving them the animal sacrifice for Passover that they had purchased. In the Talmud we find an almost identical account:
Our Rabbis taught: when the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus was within [the city wall]. Each day [those that were within] used to let down [to those outside] coins in a basket, and haul up [in return] animals for the daily sacrifices. An old man knowledgeable in Greek wisdom said [to those outside] in Greek: ‘As long as they carry on the Temple service, they will never surrender to you’. The next day, they let down coins, but they hauled up a pig. When it [the pig] reached halfway up the wall, it stuck its claws into the wall and the land of Israel was quaked a distance of 400 parasangs. At that time they declared: “Cursed is the man who raises pigs, cursed is the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom.”  
Like Josephus’s account, the Talmud’s account includes Hyrcanus’s siege of Aristobulus and his deception of those within the city regarding the sale of an animal sacrifice. In addition to the Talmud’s similarities to Josephus, the fact that this Talmudic passage identifies the Hasmonean brothers using their Greek names “Aristobulus” and “Hyrcanus”, as opposed to most other Talmudic stories where Greek names are converted into their Hebrew forms, suggests that Hazal imported this story from an outside source derived from Josephus, who wrote in Greek. Thus, we can view Josephus’s version as the “control” to which to the Talmudic version can be contrasted.
Having established this, it is worth noting the differences between the two versions. One is that in Josephus, the conflict is about the sacrifices of Passover, but in the Talmud, it is about the daily sacrifice. Also, in Josephus, Hyrcanus’s deception is to haul up no sacrifice, but in the Talmud, it is the hauling up of a pig. We may theorize that Hazal added the element of the pig to the story to underscore their broader view of this Hasmonean civil war. The idea of a pig as a sacrifice hearkens back to the religious decree of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV that forced Jews to sacrifice pigs in the Temple to Greek gods (168 B.C.E.).  The motive for Anitochus’s decrees, according to some, was to spread Hellenistic rites and culture. Thus, Hazal’s placement of the pig into the story as the item of deception may symbolically convey that this civil war was due to the spread of Hellenism amongst Jews. Indeed, during this period, many Hasmoneans became greatly influenced by Hellenism and were estranged from Jewish observance. There was disunity between the Hellenizers, who embraced Greek culture, and the non-Hellenizers, who did not. The notion that Hellenism caused the strife is also reflected in the Talmud’s assertion that the deceitful plan to haul up the pig was initiated by a man knowledgeable in Greek wisdom. Additionally, this Talmudic passage is written in the context of a discussion of the prohibition of learning Greek wisdom.
Alternatively, it may be suggested that the pig is a symbol of Rome, as the two are often associated throughout rabbinic literature.  As mentioned above, the brothers’ appeal to Pompey led to Pompey’s conquest of Judea and the end of the Hasmonean dynasty. Thus, perhaps Hazal wished to emphasize that their disunity caused the Roman infiltration of Judea.
Story 2: The Prophecy of Vespasian’s Ascent
In 66 C.E., Jews throughout Judea began a rebellion, later known as the Great Revolt, against the Roman emperor Nero in hopes of gaining autonomy. Roman forces mobilized to different parts of Judea and the rebellion was crushed. In 70 C.E., the Temple was destroyed.
The Talmud records a story about the Roman siege of Jerusalem right before the destruction of the Second Temple is recorded. It says that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leading rabbinic figure, encouraged the Jews to surrender to the Roman general Vespasian. A group of rebels, however, refused and instead wished to battlefight. When R. Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that the rebels’ actions would lead to the destruction of the Temple, he told his students to carry him out of the city in a coffin to deceive the rebel gatekeepers into allowing them to leave for the sake of burying the dead. After he escaped, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai went to the Roman camp, approached Vespasian, and predicted that Vespasian would become the new emperor. Soon after, word was delivered that Nero had died and that Vespasian had indeed been crowned the new emperor. When offered a reward for his correct prediction, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai requested that he be given the city of Yavneh to reestablish Jewish life. The request was granted but, as expected, Jerusalem was destroyed.
Fascinatingly, this entire Talmudic account parallels a certain story that Josephus writes about himself. Before Josephus became a Roman historian, he was the head of the Jewish forces in the city of Jotapata during the Great Revolt. Josephus writes that when the city fell to the Romans, he escaped into a cave with forty other people. Much to Josephus’s dismay, they all voted to commit a mass suicide instead of surrendering to the Romans. They drew lots to determine the order and, by luck of the draw, Josephus and one other man remained as the last pair. Josephus convinced the other man to surrender with him and, when they did, Josephus approached Vespasian saying:
You believe, Vespasian, that I am merely a prisoner, but I come to you as a herald of greater destinies…You will be Caesar, Vespasian. You will be emperor… 
Later in 69 C.E., when Vespasian was proclaimed emperor, Josephus was granted Roman citizenship. He eventually became an advisor and historian for the Romans.
Both Hazal and Josephus tell a story of a leader who surrenders to the Romans in opposition to other Jews, prophetically predicts the crowning of Vespasian, and is rewarded for his efforts. It should be noted that Josephus’s narrative fits naturally within historical context. When the Romans captured Jotapata along with the rest of the Galilee in 67 C.E., Vespasian was indeed commanding the offensive there and was still a general.  However, Hazal’s version does not seem to fit in historical context. The Roman siege of Jerusalem took place in 70 C.E., when Vespasian was already the emperor and back in Rome. Thus, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai could not have met Vespasian outside Jerusalem and Vespasian was already declared emperor. It is then reasonable to assume that Hazal had a tradition from a source based on Josephus and applied it to R. Yohanan ben Zakkai in order to make a point.
In telling this story, perhaps Hazal wished to promote a certain approach to the post-Temple era. While many Jews felt uncomfortable under the rule of the Romans and felt hopeless without a Temple, Hazal wished to emphasize that Jewish life could nevertheless continue and adapt. R. Yohanan ben Zakkai was the hero of that movement, since he was the one who made various religious enactments after the destruction of the Temple. These enactments allowed for Temple-bound Jewish practices to be done outside the Temple, allowing Judaism to thrive in a new diaspora reality. Some of these enactments include: (1) taking the Lulav bundle for all seven days of the holiday of Sukkot, an act originally only done in the Temple; (2) blowing the Shofar for Rosh HaShana even on the Sabbath (if there was a court in the city), something originally only done in the Temple; and (3) having the Temple priests bless the people while barefoot, also something only done in the Temple. Thus, Hazal’s portrayal of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai as a pseudo-prophet who surrendered to the Romans in return for the Yavneh might have been their way of affirming the philosophy of progressing and continuing Judaism without political autonomy or a Temple.
The notion of surrendering to the Romans to ensure the future survival of Judaism is highlighted in the contrast between Hazal’s and Josephus’s accounts. Whereas in Josephus, the prophecy to Vespasian is delivered for self-interest and ends in the protagonist joining the enemy side, in the Talmud, it is delivered for the needs of others and for the broader interests of Judaism.
While we have pointed out that the inspiration for Hazal’s story may have come from Josephus, many elements of the R. Yohanan ben Zakkai story also parallel the story of the prophet Jeremiah during the destruction of the First Temple. Both lived in a besieged Jerusalem, foresaw the city’s destruction, and advocated surrendering to the foreign nation. Both ran into trouble while trying to exit the city gates. Both were rewarded by an enemy leader in response to their prophecies. By portraying R. Yohanan ben Zakkai in the image of Jeremiah, Hazal may have wished to underscore the foresight and hopefulness of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai.
By contrasting similar accounts found in Josephus and the Talmud, we can identify instances where Hazal may have sought to emphasize or alter details in their historical narratives in order to embed their stories with certain messages and lessons. By analyzing these contrasts, we can better study historical narratives and their broader historical periods through the mindset and outlook of Hazal.
 Shaye J.D. Cohen, “Parallel Historical Tradition in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature,” World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1986) Division B, vol.1.
 Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1991), 100-104.
 Hershel Shanks, Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999), 283, 287-288.
 Antiquities of the Jews, XIV 2.2. Translation of Josephus’s works is from the William Whiston translation (1737), with some minor modifications.
 Translation of Josephus’s works is from the William Whiston translation (1737), with some minor modifications.
 Sotah 49b; Menachot 64b.
 Translation of the Talmud is from the Soncino Talmud, with some minor modifications.
 Vered Noam, “Unity, Schism, and Foreign Culture: The War of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus and the Murder of Onias.” Web. Accessed 13 February 2016. https://us.ivoox.com/en/vered-noam-on-unity-schism-and-foreign-culture-audios-mp3_rf_10245314_1.html.
 Dov Linzer, “Menachot 64- Josephus, Hyrcanus, and the Pig on the Wall,” A Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva: Torah From Our Beit Midrash, available at rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com
 I Maccabees, 1:44-48.
 See Mitchell First, “What Motivated Antiochus to Issue his Decrees Against the Jews?”, Hakirah 16 (Winter 2013): 193-211
 Schiffman , 101.
 Sotah 49b.
 Lev. Rabbah 13:5; Gen. Rabbah 65:1; Pesachim 118b.
 Linzer, “Menachot 64- Josephus, Hyrcanus, and the Pig on the Wall.”
 Schiffman, 157-161.
 Gittin 56a-56b; Avot Di-Rabbi Nathan A, Chapter 4; Avot Di-Rabbi Nathan B, Chapter 6; Lam. Rabbah 1:29.
 It should be noted that there are many discrepancies amongst the rabbinic versions.
 Gary William Poole, “Flavius Josephus,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, available at www.britannica.com.
 Jewish War 3.7-8.
 Jewish War 3.8-9.
 Amram Tropper, Rewriting Ancient Jewish History: The History of the Jews in Roman times and the New Historical Method (New York: Routledge 2016), 149-157.
 The fact that it fits into historical context indicates that the story might have originated with Josephus. However, in terms of historical truth, Josephus may have claimed to have his prophecy in order to aggrandize himself in face of, what many might have thought of as, his traitorous actions in joining the Romans. See E.D. Huntsman, “The Reliability of Josephus: Can He Be Trusted?” Bringham Young University Studies 36, no. 3 (1996), 392-402.
 Tropper, 149-157
 Sukkah 41a.
 Rosh Hashana 29b.
 Rosh Hashana 31b.
 Tropper , 149-157
 Jeremiah 38:18.
 Jeremiah 37:13.
 Jeremiah 39:11-12.