This is an interview with Sören Swoboda, author of Tod und Sterben im Krieg bei Josephus: Die Intentionen von Bellum und Antiquitates im Kontext griechisch-römischer Historiographie (“Death and Dying in War in the Works of Josephus: The Intentions of Bellum and Antiquitates in the Context of Greco-Roman Historiography”). The book was published in 2014 by Mohr Siebeck. Dr. Swoboda is currently a member of the Theological Faculty at the University of Jena, in Germany. The interview was conducted at the SBL meeting in November 2014.
AJR: What’s the main argument of your book and how is it significant for the field of Josephus studies?
S: My book compares Josephus’ Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities with the work of other historians in antiquity. This book situates Josephus in ancient historiography as a means of discovering the intentions of the work. I engaged in extensive comparison with other ancient historians, primarily focused around Josephus’ depictions of Jewish deaths (such as victim-numbers and last word scenes). Josephus’ depiction of Jewish deaths in battle is highly idiosyncratic and does not really reflect Greek and Roman depictions of death in battle.
AJR: How is Josephus like other Greek and Roman historians, and how is he different particularly around this issue of death in battle? And what does this tell us about Josephus?
S: Well first, it’s important to note that historical works are complex documents, which often have more than one genre in them. There’s no real singular idea or genre of history, and that makes comparison a complex process. But even given all that, I found that Josephus’ work is highly idiosyncratic when compared with other historians. When you look at the proems of Josephus’ books (the first pages) you might assume that Josephus is a “typical” Greco-Roman historian, but when you read through all of his books you see how different he is. This is particularly true for cases of death in battle, which in the Jewish War Josephus dwells upon at great length, in order to stimulate the reader’s compassion for the Jews and, in some places, make the reader recognize their bravery. Similarly, Josephus’ apologetic is far more pronounced in contrast to Greek and Roman historians, who appear a bit more neutral in their descriptions of history, and attempt to hide their agenda. Josephus writes history for a particular aim—history has meaning, which seems to be a somewhat more Jewish way of thinking about the past. In form, Josephus’ works are closer to 1 and 2 Maccabees than to Greco-Roman historiography. It has become fashionable to read Josephus as a historian in the Greco-Roman world, but his Jewishness, and his apologetic, is really strongly pronounced.
AJR: These scenes of death and dying in Josephus are an interesting form of subjectivity—Josephus in these scenes is often promoting Roman glory at the expense of his countrymen—how does Josephus’ Jewishness influence his portrayal of his countrymen in these scenes?
S: Based especially on the odd subject position that Josephus is in when he writes these scenes of death and dying, I argue that these works were not written for a Jewish audience. The depiction of these Jewish deaths is really extraordinary and it focuses the reader for example on the bravery of the Jews, but it especially highlights their suffering. These sorts of scenes are exceptionally atypical of the Greco-Roman historiographic tradition—the only parallel that I could find is the long death scene in Thucydides’ description of the plague in Athens (and this is not dying in war). The prominence of such death scenes is extremely revealing for Josephus’ aims and audience; he wants to show the suffering of the Jews and he laments their situation. Such displays of suffering can be found in Seneca and were common tactics in ancient courts, evoking the pity of the judges through displaying the crying children of the accused. Similarly, tragic historians sought to evoke pity, intensifying the common horror scenes found in tragedy. However, many historians and Lucian in his De Historia Conscribenda considered the use of such displays of suffering and tragic history to be improper for history writing. In his proem, Josephus admits that this is against the rules of historiography, but he seeks to evoke pity through displaying the suffering of the Jews. He wants to show that the Jews suffered unjustly and had a great and illustrious history, and were ultimately not guilty of causing the war, and this needs to be said for evoking pity in antiquity. He seeks to rebuild the good image of the Jews and acquire a better position for them in the Roman Empire, whatever that meant in detail.
AJR: Tell us a little bit about how these scenes relate to martyrdom (both Christian and Jewish).
S: There isn’t actually such a strong connection here. There’s a resemblance, in that both concern good people who were willing to die for the law, which is typical for the Jews. Josephus wants to show the bravery of the Jews and to die for one’s convictions is a virtue that would have made sense to Roman audiences. Unlike martyrdoms, however, Josephus does not dwell on the displays of death and there’s no sense of hostility towards the Romans or a denigration of Romanness.
AJR: What were some of Josephus’ goals in writing the book? Who was Josephus’ audience in the AJ and the BJ?
S: We should primarily see Josephus in the context of Diaspora Judaism. Through his writing, Josephus wants to stay Jewish and maintain Jewish identity, but he also wants Jews to fit into the Roman Empire. The main intention of the War is to garner compassion, pity and sympathy for the Jews through the staging of suffering. Connected with this larger intention to create a more sympathetic picture of the Jews is Josephus’ clear attempt to blame only a minority of the Jews and to show that the Jews as a whole are good, especially brave people. His writings fulfill this goal more generally by building a bridge to the Roman world, displaying Jewish laws, history, and bravery to a Roman audience, while also attempting to decrease the resentment of Jews more generally (and it is here that his Diaspora context plays an important role).
In the Antiquities, Josephus’ goal is to present the Jews in a good light as a means of convincing non-Jews that Jews are good people. He wants to describe Judaism as something that is acceptable to Romans, and thus, you see him censoring himself in various places and hiding things that would be uncomfortable for Jews. Antiquities is not overtly an apologetic work, but it does have apologetic aims. Whereas the War seems to be responding to specific slanders and pressures that the Jews were facing in the wake of the Jewish War, the AJ is less interested in defending the Jews and you get the sense that Jews were in a better position.
AJR: What surprised you about Josephus?
S: Volker Siegert, the editor of Contra Apionem, said the more you read Josephus, the less you like him. As a writer, Josephus has aims and covers up his personal life to fit to his agenda. He is often lying and he’s not very reflective. He’s very intelligent, but also far too self-interested to really think he is a sympathetic character. When I read ancient Jewish authors, I come to appreciate them, but this didn’t really happen with Josephus.