Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Transmission and interpretation: the case of Josephus

Roman bust often identified with Josephus, but unlikely to be him. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In studying anything to do with ancient history, the first thing you learn is that the preservation of texts is a haphazard affair. Sometimes the only reason the corpus of a particular author survives is that something in it happens to satisfy the agenda of a given group, meaning that the texts are copied and recopied and passed on when the evolving current of the tradition to which they belong would otherwise have left them behind.

This is the case with Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE–50 CE), whose allegorical reading of Scripture within an eclectic philosophical framework incorporating Platonist, Stoic and Aristotelian elements made him so useful to the Church Fathers. Philo, a faithful Jew of the diaspora élite, a Torah-observant intellectual who as far as we know was not aware of the career of his contemporary Jesus of Nazareth, ended up being adopted—or, better, appropriated—by generations of theologians as a sort of crypto- or proto-Christian. To those who know and love his work for its own sake, this is rather galling; and yet, if he had not been embraced by the emerging patristic tradition, perhaps we would not now have his work to know and to love.

And this is also the case, in a different and troubling way, with the historian and apologist Josephus (37–c. 100 CE). Josephus was a Palestinian nobleman who, at the age of thirty, was captured by Vespasian while commanding the Judaean forces in Galilee during the war against Rome. Having—according to him—foreseen Vespasian’s succession in a prophetic dream, he became a sort of favourite of the new emperor and of his son, Titus, acting as the latter’s ambassador and interpreter during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Josephus would subsequently write his own account of the war as well as other works, of which the greatest in every sense is his eighteen-volume Jewish Antiquities.

Two things made Josephus irresistible to Christian tradition, thus ensuring that his works remained in circulation when his peculiar and delicate political position might otherwise have relegated him to a sort of distasteful obscurity. One is the so-called “Testamentum Flavianum”, a passage in Antiquities XVIII that appears to testify to the historical Jesus. This is now agreed to be, at the very least, a partial interpolation and may very well have been inserted in its entirety by a Christian scribe. It runs as follows:

Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not died out.

Now, Josephus may have heard of Jesus and thought him worth mentioning, much as he mentions John the Baptist; he may even have called him a “wise man” and “one who did surprising deeds”. The Christians might have drawn enough of his attention to be included along with the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes and others in his depiction of the diverse landscape of Second Temple Judaism. But I think it a safe bet that he would not have written that “He was the Messiah”. Scholars now understand the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism to be a far longer and more nuanced process than was previously believed; the Christian movement at its origins was a variety of Judaism. But it was a radical sectarian variety, one that lived in the immediate expectation of the eschatological moment. For Jesus’ followers, the end times would soon unfold, were already unfolding. Josephus had no such belief.

And that brings us to the second thing that made him so attractive to Christians: his theology, or a particular misinterpretation of his theology. Like the author we now call Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40–55), who wrote during the exile in Babylon following the first siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Josephus sees the God of Israel as the supreme historical actor. If Israel has fallen so far, he argues, it can only be because the covenant has been broken; defeat and destruction, whether by Nebuchadnezzar or by Vespasian, can only come about by divine providence. This thoroughly biblical line of argumentation, entirely coherent with its first-century Jewish context, is now beyond unsustainable; but its appeal for Christian interpreters of a certain stripe is, sadly, obvious. Both Deutero-Isaiah and Josephus believe unconditionally in the continuing and universal validity of God’s covenant with Abraham; for them, Israel’s defeat, even the loss of the temple, does not mean that the Jewish people has been abandoned. God will restore Israel. Nothing can overcome the steadfastness and generosity of his love. Isaiah 40 opens to this effect with something like a rallying cry, and one of extraordinary poignancy:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
That she has served her term,
That her penalty is paid,
That she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

Emerging Christian antisemitism, however, saw in the destruction of the temple in 70 CE a sign of the abandonment of Israel, and found in Josephus’ boldly expressed Isaianic theology—and in his vivid, gruesome descriptions of the excesses of war and siege—fodder for a narrative in which the Jewish people had consigned themselves to oblivion by failing to accept Jesus. Josephus, bastardised and out of context, became the legitimising voice for a set of claims he himself would neither have made nor accepted. This excellent talk by the Josephus scholar Tessa Rajak gives an overview of the Christian reception of Josephus, and provides a number of sobering examples.

This painful textual history is one with which all who read Josephus now must grapple. The best first step, of course, is simply to read him, and to read him as far as possible by his own lights. But if the story of Josephus shows us one thing, it’s that the transmission of ancient texts is far from a neutral process. In trying to understand them, we also have to investigate why it is we come to have them in the first place. And what that investigation reveals can turn out to be a whole story in itself.

Kirsty Jane McCluskey is a final year student in theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. 

One comment on “Transmission and interpretation: the case of Josephus

  1. Pingback: The Pontius Pilate Project | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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