Monty Python

and the

Works of Josephus

       An essay in honor of the 25th 30th anniversary re-release of

The Life of Brian

by G. J. Goldberg

May 2004; Revised February 2009


Cheese is rarely mentioned in the writings of Josephus. Yet the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian,1 which, according to its writers, is “based on a load of Josephus”,2 begins its post-title action with just such a reference. In this scene, the pointless hostility of a segment of the Judean populace, a theme throughout both Josephus and Brian, causes some of them to miss an essential message: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” 3

GREGORY (Trying to listen to the Sermon on the Mount):
Could you be quiet, please?
JESUS (In the far distance):
They shall have the earth...
What was that?
...for their possession. How blest are those...
I don't know. I was too busy talking to Big Nose.
...who hunger and thirst to see...
MAN #1:
I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'
...right prevail.
Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.4

I deeply admire that phrase, spoken with all the authority of a modern Professor of Religious Studies: “Obviously this is not meant to be taken literally -- it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

Yet is it so far off? Josephus tells us of a narrow ravine running through central Jerusalem:

The Valley of the Cheesemakers, as the ravine was called, divides the hill of the upper city from that of the lower, and extends down to the Pool of Siloam. (War 5.4.1 140)
The Greek name, Tyropoion Valley, is the genitive plural of tyropoios, from tyros, “cheese”, and poieo, “make;” the translation as “Valley of the Cheesemakers” is uncontroversial. Cheese makers -- or any manufacturers of dairy products -- who toil in the very heart of the holy city must surely have been blessed. 5


At the completion of the sermon in Brian a band of Judean revolutionaries leaves, whose leader, Reg, has no trouble putting it into perspective:

What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it's the meek who are the problem.7

Indeed they are. Moderates stand in the way of violent revolution, a point made again and again by Josephus. During the great antagonism was aimed at the mass of citizens who were not inclined to fight; leaders of the moderate party were killed or imprisoned. This conflict is vividly described by Josephus in numerous passages, such as the following:
The city being now on all sides beset by these battling conspirators and their rabble, between them the people, like some huge carcass, was torn in pieces....And the brigand chiefs, divided on all else, put to death as their common enemies any in favour of peace with the Romans or suspected of an intention to desert, and were unanaimous only in slaughtering those deserving of deliverance. (War 5.1.5 27-34)



The most striking dependence of Brian on Josephus lies in the film's vivid portrayal of the Roman occupation of Judea and consequent revolutionary factionalism. Josephus painfully demarcates the fracturing of the revolution into factions and sub-factions: Zealots, Sicarii of Masada, John of Gischala‘s group, the followers of Simon son of Gioras, Annanus' party, and the Zealot splinter group led by Eleazar son of Simon. For example:

The civil strife in Jerusalem had reached a fresh climax and become a triangular affair, one of the parties having turned its arms against itself...This new development might be not inaccurately described as a faction bred within a faction, which like some raving beast for lack of other food at length preyed upon its own flesh. (War 5.1.1-2 4-6)
(see Chronology of the War 6). The audience of Brian is given a quick summary of the situation: 8

Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the [expletive deleted] Judean People's Front.
And the Judean Popular People's Front.
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters! Splitters...
And the People's Front of Judea.
Yeah. Splitters! Splitters...
The People's Front of Judea. Splitters.
We're the People's Front of Judea!
Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
People's Front! C-huh... 
Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
He's over there.
GROUP (to Popular Front):

According to the Python commentary on the DVD release of Brian, this scene was written as a satire on the multiplication of ineffectual left-wing political parties in Britain in the 1970’s. However, the resonances with Josephus are so apparent we must conclude that the Pythons have "forgotten" their debt to the historian.

Roman Contributions

Although the Romans were occupiers, they did make civic improvements. Josephus describes how Pontius Pilate ordered the construction of an aqueduct to carry water into Jerusalem:

Pilate spent money from the sacred treasury in the construction of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem, intercepting the source of the stream at a distance of 200 furlongs. (War 2.9.4 175, Antiquities 18.3.2 60)
This project is explicitly cited in Brian: 9

They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers.
And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?
The aqueduct?
The aqueduct.
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that's true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?
Yeah. All right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--
[Et cetera, et cetera]

These benefits are likely overstated. Despite the aqueduct, which Pilate in any case paid for with funds stolen from the Jerusalem Temple, Josephus does not give the Romans much credit for enhancing life in Judea. The true builder of Judea was Herod the Great, who, as a client king of Rome, did adopt Roman-style architecture. And everything else mentioned in the film -- the list goes on to include wine and baths -- already existed in Jerusalem centuries before the city of Rome was even founded.

Multiple "Messiahs"

In pre-revolutionary Judea many enterprising persons, whom Josephus uncharitably terms "deceivers," gained popular followings with prophecies of signs and wonders, before being dismembered by the Romans.

There also arose another body of wicked men, not so impure in their actions, but more wicked in their intentions, which laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did the murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration, but with the intention of a revolutionary change of the government; and these persuaded the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, pretending that God would there show them the signs of liberty. But Felix thought this was the beginning of a revolt; so he sent a body of horsemen and heavily-armed soldiers, who destroyed a great number of them. (War 2.13.4 258)
The hapless title character of Brian, Brian, who is called "Brian who is called Brian," unwillingly becomes one such figure. Fleeing the Romans, he falls in among a group of these prophets as they declaim to passersby in a fashion reminiscent of Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park: 10

There shall in that time be rumors of things going astray, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things with the sort of raffia-work base, that has an attachment. At that time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer, and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock.
When Brian makes his own fumbling attempts to become a prophet (lifting a few lines from Jesus) he captures the imagination of the crowd, who swell into a multitude that, like the people described by Josephus, follows him into the wilderness, looking for a sign:
Give us a sign!
He has given us a sign! He has brought us to this place!
I didn't bring you here! You just followed me!
Oh, it's still a good sign by any standard.[...]
Hail Messiah!
I'm not the Messiah!
I say You are, Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few.
When the multitude follow him home, Brian attempts to persuade them to think for themselves. There is an echo here of Josephus' own attempts to encourage the citizens of Jerusalem to think rationally about fighting the Roman army. In both cases, the efforts are hopeless. 11
Look. You've got it all wrong.
You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!
Yes, we're all individuals!
You're all different!
Yes, we are all different!
I'm not.
Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

According to the Python DVD commentary, finding an upbeat ending for Brian proved excruciatingly difficult, inasmuch as the title character needed to be crucified at the finish. It eventually became clear to the Monty Python group that the only possible way to end the film was with a song. Eric Idle wrote it quickly – one might say, as though divinely inspired. The result is one of the most uplifting moments in cinematic history: 12

MR. FRISBEE III: (On the next cross over from Brian)
Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble. Give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best.
Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the light side of life.
If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps,
Don't be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle. That's the thing.
Always look on the bright side of life.
Come on!
Always look on the right side of life,
For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin.
Give the audience a grin.
Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow....
In the film commentary, the Pythons attributed this philosophy to the fact that all members of the group had been born during WWII, and had some memories related to the bombing of London. They said it's a British response to adversity: "I've had worse." But once again they did not adequately disclose their debt to Josephus. At the siege of Jotapata, Josephus, who was himself the commander of the Jewish forces there, witnessed or was informed of the behavior of one of his people who had fallen into the hands of the Romans:
One of the people of Jotapata had undergone all sorts of torments; and though they made him pass through a fiery trial of his enemies in his examination, yet would he inform them nothing of the affairs within the city, and as he was crucified, smiled at them. (War 3.5.33 321)




1. Handmade Films (1979). DVD Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition 2004. Written by and starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones,  and Michael Palin.

2. Something I read once somewhere.

3. There are several unauthorized Brian scripts on the Internet, such as that of "The Unofficial Monty Python Home Page"  (; but these are too unreliable for use by the serious scholar.

4. "The Unofficial Monty Python Home Page", Brian script, Scene 2.

5. Mention can also be made of Josephus' friend in Rome, the Jewish comedian Alityros, whose name translates as something like "Salty Cheese." (Life 3 16)

6. References to the Jewish War by Flavius Josephus. are in the form of "Book.Chapter.Paragraph" followed by the Greek line number.

7. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 2.

8. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 7.

9. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 9.

10. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 14.

11. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 19.

12. Brian script, op. cit., Scene 31.

The Flavius Josephus Home Page