There is good news and bad news for the state of Josephan studies. The good news is that interest in Flavius Josephus shows no signs of abating. Dissertations and publications on this first-century Jewish historian continue to be produced in Europe, Israel, and North America. The Brill Josephus Project, headed by the indefatigable Steve Mason, is in full steam; Mason, Louis Feldman, Paul Spilsbury, Christopher Begg, John Barclay, and Jan Willem van Henten have produced indispensable translations and commentaries for Josephus’ works--and more volumes are forthcoming--with the aim of covering his entire corpus (i.e., Jewish War; Jewish Antiquities; Life; Against Apion). Two sessions devoted to Josephus meet regularly at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). And this year, there were three sessions devoted to Josephus at the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Annual Meeting. Under the direction of Martin Goodman and Joanna Weinberg, moreover, Oxford University has been hosting a series of seminars on Josephus’ reception from Late Antiquity up until the 20th century. The Blackwells’ Companion to Josephus in his World, edited by Honora Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers, is due to come out this year.
Now to the bad news. Despite the continued interest in Josephus, he remains largely sequestered within the rather narrow confines of specialist study. Josephus sessions at the SBL are primarily attended by scholars who work exclusively on Josephus. Before this past year, there had been little presence of Josephus at the AJS for some time. And at the annual meetings of the American Philological Association (APA), now the Society for Classical Studies (SCS), there is nary a trace of Josephus. In his 1992 presidential address, Erich Gruen eloquently called on his fellow Classicists to address the multiculturalism of the ancient world in their research and teaching; in his speech he repeatedly demonstrated the value of Josephus as a source for how ancient groups fashioned their ethnic identities. While Classicists have made great strides in embracing multiculturalism, Josephus remains on the sidelines.
Indeed, outside his usual haunts, Josephus appears rather like a strange guest at a dinner party, politely acknowledged with smiles or nods, but rarely approached. This is in part understandable. That Josephus wrote in Greek, an extremely difficult language which takes years if not decades to master, may deter students of Jewish Studies in particular. Josephus, moreover, does not speak as readily to the immediate concerns of contemporary Jewry. For Classicists, with their prejudice for literary style (a stylist, Josephus was not), their unfamiliarity with the Jewish tradition, and the general decline in knowledge of the Bible, Josephus can appear arcane or unappealing. Even those who refer to his works tend to use them as repositories of useful data rather than interpreting them on their own terms.
There are, of course, exceptions. Peter Schäfer, Annette Yoshiko Reed, and Steve Weitzman, for instance, have shown how profitable the results can be when scholars who have written widely on aspects of ancient Judaism also direct their critical acumen to the writings of Josephus. Moreover, Josephus has long been of special interest to those historians who work at the intersection of Jewish Studies, Classics, and Ancient History, such Gruen, Seth Schwartz, Martin Goodman, Tessa Rajak, Honora Chapman, and Jonathan Price. Studies by Ancient Historians such as Brent Shaw, Julia Wilker, and Gil Gambash have further shown how attention to Josephus’ writings can contribute to our understanding of Roman history, and John Marincola and others have demonstrated the unique contribution that Classicists can bring to the study of Josephus.
Where Josephus has escaped the confines of the specialists, with astounding success, is with his Jewish War. A paperback Penguin edition can be found in most bookstores, and a new Hebrew translation of the work was recently published. Once, while sitting in the Amsterdam airport waiting for a connecting flight to Israel and flipping through my battered copy, a man approached me and said, with evident pride, that whenever his family visited him from abroad, he took them to Jotapata in Galilee and read them Josephus’ eye-witness account of the Romans’ siege and conquest of the town.
But the enduring success of Jewish War has not carried over to Josephus’ other works, nor has it furthered the horizons of Josephan studies. Both inside and outside the academy, few nonspecialists have spent serious time with Jewish Antiquities, Life, or Against Apion. Admittedly, these works don’t have the immediate appeal of Jewish War, which centers on such watershed moments in Jewish history as the Roman conquest of Judea, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the resistance and later mass suicide of the Zealots at Masada.
The Jewish Antiquities, completed around 90 CE, is a narrative account of the history of the Jews from creation up until the Roman conquest of Judea. It includes substantial expansions to the Hebrew Bible that only a handful of scholars have investigated. How many are familiar with Josephus’ extended tale of how Moses was picked by Pharaoh to lead a joint army of Egyptians and Hebrews against the Ethiopians, who had previously invaded Egypt, and how Moses also married the Ethiopian princess after successfully defeating the Ethiopians—all well before he liberated the enslaved Israelites? Or his assertion that Abraham was versed in Chaldean science? Or that Solomon was skilled in magic healing rites? For the reader interested in the career of Herod, Antiquities offers a startlingly negative portrait of the king in contrast to the depiction in the War. Book 14 of Antiquities records a lengthy list of inscribed decrees that provide proof of the Jews’ civic rites in various Greek cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, a narrative feature without parallel in ancient historiography. Book 19, the penultimate book, weaves into Jewish history an extended account of the conspiracy against the Roman emperor Caligula.
Yet few have ventured into this massive tome (with the notable exception of Louis Feldman, as well as Harold Attridge, Annette Yoshiko Reed, and Greg Sterling). The great potential of the Antiquities for further research was affirmed in 2013-2014, when it was the subject of a year-long investigation by the Philadelphia Seminar in Christian Origins (PSCO). Speakers invited to lead the seminars were pleasantly surprised to discover that the Antiquities was far more interesting than they had thought, and equally shocked to learn that so little had been written on its many interesting sections. The seminar also demonstrated how fruitful a convergence of scholars of ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and Classics discussing Josephus together can be.
In addition to Antiquities, much value can be gained in reading the Life and Against Apion. The former, after all, stands as one of the earliest extant “autobiographies” from antiquity. Against Apion, Josephus’ last work, is a fierce polemic against various Greek historians who wrote misleading and derogatory accounts of the Jews. It also contains the most explicit account of Josephus’ mature political thought. In the last third of Against Apion, he presents a theoretical description of the Jewish “constitution” (politeuma), and even invents a term to describe it—“theocracy” (theokratia)—the first recorded use of this word. Unbeknownst to most Classicists, Against Apion also contains an early extant critical account of the composition of the Homeric poems.
There could not be a better time for both scholars and lay persons to delve into Josephus’ works. The tools for research are better than ever. Not only are there new translations and commentaries being produced, but Rengsdorff’s complete concordance is now available in two volumes. Online texts, such as those at the PACE project, have made accessing and reading Josephus in Greek easier than ever.
Moreover, the field of Classics has recently experienced increased scholarly interest in the so-called Second Sophistic—the renaissance of Greek literary production under the Roman Empire from the late first to the third centuries CE. Common features in many of these works are Greek intellectuals refashioning the myths of their past in order to make sense of their lived reality, negotiating their relationship with Roman power, and creating a cosmopolitan culture of an intellectual elite. The explosion of scholarly publications on this literature makes it an opportune time to investigate whether such scholarly approaches to these works might be profitably applied to the writings of Josephus. The works of Josephus share many of the characteristics of literature from the Second Sophistic. Antiquities represents a significant reshaping of the Jewish past; Rome figures prominently throughout all of Josephus’ works, explicitly and implicitly; and Antiquities and Against Apion are the attempts of an elite to present the cosmopolitan nature of Judaic culture.
Recent trends in the intersection between material culture and texts might also be usefully applied to Josephus’ works, which contain a surprising amount of details about material culture. Such studies would serve as a welcome relief from the older method of using Josephus simply as a guide for unveiling the archeology of first-century Judea, or conversely, using archaeology to test the veracity of Josephus’ histories. Standing at the intersection of Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish cultures, Josephus’ writings may provide a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand how ancients interacted with and understood objects.
In his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon added a footnote in his section on the Roman military, stating that “we are indebted to this Jew for his curious details about Roman military discipline.” He was referring to Josephus’ detailed description of a Roman legionary camp in Galilee. In the time since Gibbon, we are able to say that we are indebted to Josephus for a great deal more. Whether we will be able to express even more gratitude will depend, at least in part, on whether scholars can integrate fresh approaches to his work and meet the challenge of venturing outside their disciplinary boundaries.
Jacob Feeley is a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History.