A Companion to Josephus by Chapman and Rodgers

Book Review by Michael Mates

Twitter Version: Scholars think better of Josephus than they used to.
Longer Version: This one-volume mini-encyclopedia will tell you everything you need to know about Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD), the aristocratic Jewish priest and general who surrendered to the Roman commanders Vespasian and Titus in 67 AD and became an author of 30 volumes of works (The Jewish Wars, Jewish Antiquities and others), all written in Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire’s intelligentsia. References in this review to the text will be made by page number, and not by author and title of article, since the style and overall assessment of Josephus are quite consistent.

In A Companion to Josephus, 29 scholars distill everything they know about Josephus into 30 dense articles, all of which are well fortified with background information and suggestions for further reading; two of them present 98 and 108 references! All of them support the consensus that his reputation has risen, and portray him as a skilled editor of sources; while he allows occasional obvious but not fatal discrepancies between accounts in different works, these are attributed to Josephus’s purposes, needs and biases. For instance, he “inserts God’s providence” into Jewish Antiquities where he does not mention it in parallel passages in Jewish Wars (p 51), and changes Saul’s demand for Philistine foreskins (I Samuel 18.25) into a demand for heads (p 53), to avoid offending his Gentile readers.

The authors also consider him a generally valid source of insight into Jewish worship and sects (including Christianity), and history, Roman and Jewish warfare, the text of the Bible, and archaeology. His use by early and medieval Christians is carefully noted. Josephus’s former status as a rat and traitor has been reversed, although it is argued from the wrong categories, such as his excellent style and changing public moods in modern times.

Although he was raised in Israel and was a priest, Josephus was assimilated into the Greek literary culture of imperial historiography: Jewish Wars is rhetorically expert in style, using anticipation, variation, vivid portrayal and symmetry (p 20). His historiography, seen as a “moral and literary undertaking” (p 26), fits the moral sentiments of the Empire. As such a writer, and as the inventor of the word “theocracy” (p 80), Josephus shows himself to be much more than a GSL (Greek as a Second Language) writer.

The text in numerous places describes Josephus’s motivation in writing: the urge of the eyewitness to describe events as they happened; the desire to describe the millennia-long age of the Jewish people and religion (in a time when “new” was often a slur); his quarrel with Jewish “vigilantism” (p 22); the impracticality of opposing the Romans; a concern to praise—in moderation—his Roman benefactors; and the desire to justify himself for contriving to escape the “suicide” pact and surrendering to the Romans at Jotapata in 67 AD. More could have been made of his self-congratulatory description of himself as a commander who makes the best use of thin resources with a Ulysses-like wiliness. See his use of bags of chaff, dropped from the city walls and placed where they would blunt the blows of the battering ram attacking the city wall. (Jewish Wars Book 3, chapter 7.20.)

The various authors show a welcome caution regarding what can be known. While noting a “rich variety of texts” (p 331), the book also notes that a third-century fragment, in a mere 44 lines, contains nine readings different from those in any other manuscript (p 399). One author even admits that the inclusion of an article on Josephus and women “has more to do with the [contemporary] Zeitgeist than with Josephus’s writings” (p 210).

All of the authors write in a clear scholarly style, free from jargon and enlivened from time to time by vivid speech: the political “system crashes in Nero’s final years” (p 21); Josephus arranged his notes in the “first-century’s equivalent of a shoebox” (p 41); he smoothed together his sources, so that “readers could read without feeling jerked around” (p 44); an assertion that Josephus, who prophesied so prominently that Vespasian would become emperor, would hardly “have been left in the cheap seats” (p 90). And so on, to the final article, which examines Josephus’s influence on the Monty Python film Life of Brian, and ends with the scene of a centurion (channeling a testy Latin master) bullying Brian’s grammar and vocabulary into the correct Latin version of “Romans Go Home” (p 452).

Josephus and the Christian Church have a close but fraught relationship. He writes in the same period (after 70 AD) as the writers of the Gospels (p 147), and his works were used by the Church in anti-pagan and anti-Jewish rhetoric (chapters 22-24). Various medieval scribes added pro-Christian phrases into Josephus’s works (passim), to the extent that his works were known as the “Fifth Gospel.” (The scornful term “evangelastic” neatly skewers such use of stretching the truth in what the perpetrator considers a good cause.)

The “suicide” pact at Jotapata (Yodfat) (Jewish Wars 3, chapters 7-8) anticipates Masada: the doomed defenders prefer death to surrender and slavery; Josephus has attempted to talk his fellow leaders out of killing themselves, but after they threatened him, he proposes death by lot (the first “winner” to be killed by the “runner up,” and so on through all of them). Somehow, Josephus and another man are the last ones standing; Josephus persuades him to back out of the bargain, and surrenders to the Romans.

A Companion notes the “process of transformation of Josephus from the low-life traitor of the 1930s” (an assessment based on his behavior at Jotapata) “to the skilled historian and writer of the 1960s” (p 410). However, it makes the moral assessment on the basis of categories other than the moral: One author says that the question of betrayal is “irrelevant. The only betrayal of the Jewish people that can be attributed to Josephus took place centuries later when he unintentionally and unknowingly became part of the Christian anti-Jewish polemics” (p 365). Other arguments for his rehabilitation are that he wrote well, and that a change in Israel’s national mood (from besieged in the 1930s and 1940s, to triumphalist in 1967, to present-day doubts) helped scholars see him as a “realist” (p 423) and a better man. Similarly, the confirmation of his “reliability” on the Essenes by the Qumran documents “bolstered [his] credibility” (p 428). The concluding claim is that it is impossible to praise the “literary quality” of The Jewish Wars “along with a very negative moral estimation of its author” (p 433).

The question of betrayal is not irrelevant. The assessment of character is a moral exercise, based on his decisions and actions, and not on such non-moral and irrelevant categories as later assessments, literary skill, sectarian accuracy, or shifting public opinion in Israel. These categories have nothing to do with morality. It is very possible to admire great artistry and to deplore the character of the artist. Think how many creative geniuses were and are skunks. It would have been better to argue that Josephus was in a bind, because of the threats against him, and used his wiles (though he credits the providence of God) to escape. That was an expedient, clever and practical way out of the difficulty, and it is on those characteristics that part of his moral stature should be judged.

But I could go on. Apart from the cavil about the moral assessment, and a few trivial typos, this book is a right royal feast, and an essential purchase for anyone interested in what can be said about Flavius Josephus.

Michael Mates earned his PhD in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA, writing his dissertation on St. Patrick and the British Church. After seminary, he taught in Pakistan, and then worked as a U.S. diplomat with the Department of State, serving in Islamabad, Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of) and Chisinau (Moldova), before retiring in 2011 to Monroe, Washington State, and starting a new career as co-landscaper at his hectare of gardens, lawns and forest, and brewer of black-fudge garden compost.

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