Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Josephus by Norman Bentwich

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

of the Byzantine and Papal courts, Josephus was esteemed as a
distinguished and godlike historian, and as a truthloving man ([Greek:
philalaethaes anaer]). He was dubbed by Jerome "the Greek Livy," and to
Tertullian and his followers he was an unfailing guide. Choice passages
in his writings are frequently extracted, often with a little purposive
modification, to emphasize some Christological design. Eustathius of
Antioch in the sixth century, Syncellus in the eighth, and Cedrenus and
Glycas some three or four hundred years later, are among those whose
extant fragments prove a frequent use of Josephus. And the neo-Platonist
philosopher Porphyry (ab. 300 C.E.), who was well acquainted with Jewish
literature, reproduces in his treatise on Abstinence the various
passages about the Essenes from the _Wars_ and the _Antiquities_. The
Emperor Constantine later ordered extracts from the _Wars_ to be put
together for his edification in a selection bearing the title _About
Virtue and Vice_.

Owing to this popularity, we have abundant manuscripts of Josephus. The
oldest of the Latin is as early as the sixth century; the Greek date
from the tenth century and later. Niese, the most authoritative editor
of Josephus in modern times, thinks that our manuscript families go back
to one archetype of the second century in the epoch of the Antonines.
The earliest printed copy like the earliest manuscript of his work
contains the Latin version, being a part of the _Antiquities_, which was
issued in 1470 at Augsburg. The whole corpus was printed in 1499, and,
after a number of Latin editions, the first Greek edition was published
at Basel by Arten, in 1544, together with the Fourth Book of the
Maccabees, which was ascribed to the historian.

In the days of vast but undiscriminating scholarship that followed the
Renaissance, Josephus still enjoyed a great repute, and Scaliger, prince
of polymaths, regarded him as superior to any pagan historian. The great
Dutch scholar Havercamp made a special study of the manuscripts, and
produced, in 1726, a repertory of everything discovered about his
author. A little later Whiston, professor of mathematics at Cambridge,
published an English translation of all the works, which is still
serviceable, but not critical, together with some dissertations, which
are neither serviceable nor critical. Later translations into English
and almost every other language were made, but the greatest work of
modern times on Josephus is the edition of Niese. Lastly, it may be
mentioned that we have a Slavonic version, which goes back to the eighth
or the ninth century, and a Syriac version of the sixth book of the
_Wars_, which is included, immediately after the Fourth Book of the
Maccabees, in a manuscript of the Syriac version of the Bible dating
from the sixth century, and is entitled the Fifth Book of the Maccabees.
It has been suggested that the Syriac was based on the work which
Josephus published in Aramaic before he wrote the Greek; but Professor
Nldeke has shown that the theory is not probable, since the translator
clearly used the Greek text.[1] Somewhat late in the day a Hebrew
translation of the books _Against Apion_, which were regarded as the
most Jewish part of his work, was made in the Middle Ages, and printed,
together with Abraham Zacuto's Yuhasin, at Constantinople, in 1506, by
Samuel Shullam. The Hebrew translation is very free, and is marred by
several large omissions. It was very probably made with the help of the
Latin version.

[Footnote 1: Literarisches Centralblatt, 1880, no. 20, p. 881.]

While Josephus enjoyed great honor among Christian scholars, for
centuries he passed out of the knowledge of his own people. The Talmud
has no reference to him, for the surmise that he is the "philosopher"
visited by the four sages who journeyed from Palestine to Rome[1] is no
more than a vague possibility. Nor has the supposed identification with
the Joseph Hakohen that is mentioned in the Midrash anything more solid
to uphold it.[2] In the Middle Ages, however, when Spain, Italy, and
North Africa witnessed a remarkable revival of Jewish literature, both
secular and religious, and when scientific studies again interested the
people, the historical literature of other peoples became known to their
scholars, and several Jewish writers mention the chronicles of one
Yosippon, or "little Joseph." The text of the chronicle itself is widely
known from the eleventh century onwards. The first author to mention it
is David ben Tammum (ab. 950), and an extract from the book is found
about a century later. Four manuscripts of it have come down to us: two
in the Vatican, one in Paris, and one in Turin, and it was among the
earliest Hebrew books printed. Professing to be the work of Joseph ben
Gorion, one of the Jewish commanders in the war with Rome and a prefect
of Jerusalem, it is written in a Rabbinical Hebrew that is nearer the
classical language than most medieval compositions. It was indeed argued
on the ground of its pure classical idiom that it dated from the fourth
century, but Zunz[3] showed that this was impossible. It bears all the
traces of the pseudepigraphic tendency of a period that produced the
first works of the Cabala, the Seder Olam Zutta of Rabbi Joshua, and the
neo-Hebraic apocalypses. The attempt to write an archaic Hebrew is
marred by the presence of Rabbinical and novel terms. Reference to
events or things only known to later times is combined with the
pretension of an ancient chronicle. The country and the date of the
author are uncertain, but probabilities point to Italy, where in the
ninth and tenth centuries Jewish culture flourished, and where both
Arabic and Latin works were well known in the Ghettos. The transcription
of foreign names, the frequent introduction of the names of places in
Italy, the acquaintance with Roman history, and the fact that Italian
Jews are among the first to recognize Yosippon favor this theory. It is
fitting that the country where Josephus wrote his history should also
have produced a Jewish imitation of his work. Yosippon indeed was soon
translated into Arabic, and its narratives and legends passed into the
current stock of Ghetto history. The book was swollen by later
additions, which Zunz has proved to belong to the twelfth century. One
Yerahmeel ben Shelomoh who flourished in that epoch is mentioned in an
early manuscript as a compiler of Yosippon and other histories; and it
is possible that he was himself responsible for parts of the work in its
present form.

[Footnote 1: Derek Erez, ed. Goldberg, iii. 10.]

[Footnote 2: Mod Katon, 23a. See above, p. 177.]

[Footnote 3: Comp. Zunz, Gottesdienstliche Vortrge, pp. 154_ff_.]

The chronicle of Yosippon is a summary of Jewish history, with
considerable digressions--many of them later interpolations--about the
history of the nations with whom the Hebrew people came into contact,
Babylon, Greece, and Rome. Like the Book of Chronicles, it begins with
Adam and genealogies, explains the roll of the nations in Genesis, and
then springs suddenly from the legendary origin of Babel and Rome to the
relation of the Jews with Babylon. The history proper contains the
record of the Jews from the first to the second captivity, but is broken
by a mass of legendary material about Alexander the Great--reproducing
much of what is found in pseudo-Callisthenes--and by a short account of
the Carthaginian general Hannibal and several incidents of Roman
history. These include a description of a coronation of the Emperor,
which, it is suggested, applies to the medieval and not the classical
period of the Empire.

The book was known throughout the later part of the Middle Ages and down
to the eighteenth century as the Hebrew Josephus, and contrasted with
the [Hebrew: Yosifon la-Romim], or "Latin Josephus." When the genuine
works of our worthy became known to the Jews, Yosippon was regarded as
the true representative of the Jewish point of view against the
paganizing traitor. Its author had not a first-hand acquaintance with
our Josephus. He knew him only through the Latin versions, which were
mixed with much later material. Possibly he meant to pass off his work
as the Hebrew original of the Jewish history, and confused Joseph ben
Gorion with Joseph ben Mattathias; for in the introduction to one
manuscript we read, "I am Joseph, called Josephus the Jew, of whom it is
written that he wrote the book of the wars of the Lord, and this is the
sixth part." This, however, may be the gloss of a later scribe, who
found an anonymous book, and thought fit to supply the omission. In
places the Hebrew translator reproduces, though with some blunders, the
Latin Hegesippus, but he sought to give charm to his work by legendary
additions, which more often show Arabic and other foreign influences
than traces of the Jewish Haggadah. Interpolations have served to
increase the legendary element, and take away from the historical value.
But it is this element, reflecting the ideas of the age, that gives the
composition a peculiar literary interest.

Though only to a small extent representing Jewish tradition, the book
remained very popular among the Jews both of the West and the East, and
was long regarded as authoritative. The first printed edition was issued
at Mantua, in 1476, and was followed by the edition of Constantinople,
in 1520, arranged in chapters and enlarged, and an edition of Basel, in
1541, containing a Latin preface and a Latin translation of the greater
part. In 1546 a printed Yiddish edition appeared in Zurich, and in the
Ghetto it retains its popularity to the present day. Other editions and
translations have followed. Steinschneider has noted that as late as
1873 an abstract of the Arabic translation together with the Arabic
version of the Book of the Maccabees was published at Beirut.[1] The
spuriousness of the work has now been established, and of modern
scholars Wellhausen[2] is almost alone in ascribing to it any
independent historical worth. In the Spanish period of Jewish culture
the real as well as the spurious Josephus was read by many of his race,
and some hard things were said of him. Thus Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the
statesman and apologist (1457-1508), regarded him as a common sycophant
and wrote, "In many things he perverted the truth, even where we have
the Scriptures before us, in order to court favor with the Romans, as a
slave submits himself to the will of his master." Azariah de Rossi (ab.
1850), anticipating the ideas of a later age, alone balanced his merits
against his demerits. Among the great Christian scholars of the
Renaissance, however, he enjoyed great fame. Joseph Scaliger, the most
eminent of the seventeenth century critics, could write of him,
"Josephus was the most diligent and the most truthloving of all writers,
and one can better believe him, not only as to the affairs of the Jews,
but also as to the Gentiles, than all the Greek and Latin writers,
because his fidelity and his learning are everywhere conspicuous."[3] It
is illustrative of his popularity that Rembrandt named one of his great
Jewish pictures after him. Whiston's English translation of his works
became a household book, found side by side with the Bible and _The
Pilgrim's Progress_.[4]

[Footnote 1: J.Q.R. xvi. 393.]

[Footnote 2: Der arabische Josippus; see J.E., s.v. Joseph ben Gorion.]

[Footnote 3: De Emend. Temp. Proleg. 17.]

[Footnote 4: Readers of Rudyard Kipling may recall that in _Captains
Courageous_ one of the seamen on board the "We're Here" Schooner reads
aloud on Sunday from a book called Josephus: "It was an old
leather-bound volume very solid and very like a Bible, but enlivened
with accounts of battles and sieges."]

In modern times his reputation as a trustworthy authority has
depreciated considerably, and it is still depreciating. More accurate
study and wider knowledge have exposed his grave defects as an
historian, and the critical standpoint has dissipated the halo with
which his supposed Christian sympathies had invested him, and laid bare
his weakness and his essential unreliability. Yet with all his glaring
faults and unlovable qualities he has certain solid merits. The greatest
certainly is that his works so appealed to later generations as to have
been preserved, and thereby posterity has been enabled to get some
knowledge, however inadequate, of the history of the Jewish polity
during its last two hundred years--between the time of the Maccabees and
the fall of the nation--which would otherwise have been buried in almost
unrelieved darkness. And at the same time he has preserved a record of
some interesting pieces of Egyptian, Syrian, and Roman history. Just
because he was so little original, he has a special usefulness; for he
reproduces the statements of more capable writers than himself, who have
disappeared, and he has embodied an aspect of the Hellenistic-Jewish
literature which had otherwise been lost. We can estimate his value to
us as an historian from our ignorance of what was happening in Judea
during the fifty years after his account comes to an end.

It is true that he brings before us, for the most part, but the external
facts and the court scandals in place of the vital movements and the
underlying principles; and in dealing with contemporary events he has a
perverted view, borrowed largely from Roman foes and feebly corrected.
But it is something to have preserved even these facts, and in the
account of the _Wars_ he often draws a vivid picture. The siege of
Jerusalem has passed into the roll of the world's heroic events, and it
owes its place there largely to the narrative of Josephus. Moreover, in
spite of his pusillanimity and his subservience to his Roman patrons,
Josephus did possess a distinct pride of race and a love of his people.
It led him at times to glorify them in a gross way, but notably in the
books _Against Apion_ it could inspire a certain eloquence; and many
hostile outsiders must have learnt from his pages to appreciate some of
the great qualities of the Jewish people.

To appraise him fairly is difficult. He has few of the qualities, either
personal or literary, that attract sympathy and many of the defects that
repel. He is at once vain and obsequious, servile and spiteful,
professing candor and practising adulation, prolix and prosaic. As a
general he proved himself a traitor; as apologist of the Jews, a
function which he asserted for himself, he marred by a lack of
independence the service which he sought to render his people. In his
account of their past he was often false to their fundamental ideas of
God and history. Whether he was really under the influence of the
debased Greco-Roman culture of the day, which consigned mankind to the
dominion of fatality, or whether he deliberately masked his own
standpoint to please his audience, he presented the history of the
Hebrew nationality in the light of ideas of fate strange to it. He has
perpetuated a false picture of the Zealots, whose avowed enemy he was,
and he reveals an inadequate understanding of the deeper ideas and
deeper principles of the Pharisees, whose champion he professed to be.
Generally, in dealing with the struggle against Rome, his dominating
desire to justify his own submission and please the Romans led him to
distort the facts, and rendered him blind to the real heroism of his
countrymen. The client in him prevails over the historian: we can never
be sure whether he is expressing his own opinion or only what he
conceives will be pleasing to his patrons and masters. This dependence
affects his presentation of Judaism as well as of the Jewish people. He
dissembled his theological opinions in his larger historical works, and
it is only in his last apologetic composition that he asserts
confidently a Jewish point of view.

Yet it is but fair to Josephus to consider the times and circumstances
in which he wrote. It was an age when the love of truth was almost dead,
extinguished partly by the crushing tyranny of omnipotent Emperors,
partly by the intellectual and moral degeneration of pagan society. The
Flavian house soon showed the same characteristics of a vainglorious
despotism as the line of Caesars which it had supplanted. Under Domitian
"the only course possible for a writer without the risk of outlawry or
the sacrifice of personal honor was that followed by Juvenal and Tacitus
during his reign, viz., silence." It was an age when, in the words of
Mazzini, "a hollow sound as of dissolution was heard in the world. Man
seemed in a hideous case: placed between two infinities, he knew
neither. He knew not past nor future. All belief was dead; dead the
belief in the gods, dead the belief in the Republic." The material power
of Rome, while it dazzled by its splendor, seemed invincible, and it
crushed, in all save the strongest, independence of thought and
independence of national life. Unfortunately it fell to Josephus to
write amid these surroundings his account of the Jewish wars and the
history of the Jews, and he may have been driven to distortion to keep
his perilous position at court. The moral environment, too, was such as
to contaminate those who had not a deep faith and a strong Hebrew
consciousness. At Alexandria it was possible to achieve a harmony
between Judaism and the spiritual teaching of Greek philosophy; but the
basic conceptions of Roman Imperialism were not to be brought into
accord with Jewish ideas.

Josephus had no conception of the moral weakness, he felt only the
invincible power, of the conqueror. He was a Jew, isolated in Rome,
estranged from his own people, and not at home in his environment, a
favored captive in a splendid court, a member of a subject people living
in the halls of the mighty. Did ever situation more strongly conduce to
moral servility and mental dependence! It was well nigh impossible for
him, even had he possessed the ability, to write an honest and
independent history of the Jews. It required some courage and
steadfastness to write of the Jews at all. In such circumstances he
might well have become an apostate, as his contemporary Tiberius
Alexander had done, and it is a tribute to his Jewish feeling that he
remained in profession and in heart true to his people, that he was not
among those who with the fall of the second Temple exclaimed, "Our hope
is perished: we are cut off." He had indeed chosen the easier and less
noble way on the destruction of the national life of his people; he
preferred the palace of the Palatine with its pomp to the Vineyard at
Jabneh with its wise men. While Johanan ben Zakkai was saving Judaism,
Josephus was apologizing for it. Yet he too has done some service: he
preserved some knowledge of his people and their religion for the
Gentiles, and became one of the permanent authorities for that heretical
body of Jewish proselytes who in his own day were beginning to mark
themselves off as a separate sect, and who carried on to some extent the
work of Hellenistic Judaism. Perhaps the true judgment about him is that
he was neither noble nor villainous, neither champion nor coward, but
one of those mediocre men of talent but of weak character and
conflicting impulses struggling against adversity who succumb to the
difficulties of the time in which their life is passed, and sacrifice
their individuality to comfort. But he wrote something that has lived;
and for what he wrote, if not for what he was, he has a niche in the
literary treasure house of the Jewish people as well as in the annals of
general history. As a man, if he cannot inspire, he may at least stand
as a warning against that facile subservience to external powers and
that fatal assimilation of foreign thought which at once destroy the
individuality of the Jew and deprive him of his full humanity.


The best Greek text of Josephus is that edited by Niese (Berlin,
1887-1894), but the editions of Bekker (Leipzig, 1855) and Dindorf
(Paris, 1845) are still serviceable.

The standard English translation of the complete works is that made by
William Whiston, of Cambridge, a century ago. It has been revised in
modern times--not very thoroughly--by Shilleto (London, 1890) and by
Margoliouth (London, 1909).

A French translation, which contains excellent notes to the text, is in
the course of publication under the general editorship of M. Thodore
Reinach; and there are German translations of the whole works, by Demme,
and of the _Antiquities_, by Martin (Kln, 1852) and Clementz (Halle,
1900). The _Life_ and the books _Against Apion_ were translated by M.
Jost (Leipzig, 1867) and books xi-xiii of the _Antiquities_ by
Horschitzky. And there is another elaborately annotated edition of the
books _Against Apion_ by J. G. Mller.

The best modern works on the Roman history of the period are Mommsen's
_Roman Provinces_, and Merivale's _History of the Roman Empire_; and of
the literature of the contemporaries of Josephus, the _Annals_ and
_Histories_ of Tacitus and the _Lives of the Caesars_ by Suetonius are
the most valuable historical sources.

For Jewish history, the fullest account is provided by Schrer's
_Geschichte des jdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu_ (fourth edition),
which contains a thorough criticism of Josephus and the best general
investigation into his sources. The work has been translated into
English. Joel's _Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte_ is suggestive upon
certain aspects of the period.

Graetz, of course, deals with the events, and in the _Stories of the
Nations Series_ (Putnam) there is a volume on _The Jews under the
Romans_ by Hosmer, which is readable.

The opening chapters of Berliner's _Die Juden in Rom_, and of Vogelstein
and Rieger's _Geschichte der Juden in Rom_ (Berlin, 1895) are concerned
with the relations of Jews and Romans in the first century; and a series
of articles on the same subject by Hils, in the _Revue des tudes
juives_ (vols. viii and xi), is noteworthy. Anatole France has written
two very vivid sketches of the Roman attitude to the Jews, which give a
better impression of the inner conflict between the two peoples than any
strictly historical work, "Gallion" in _Sur la pierre blanche_, and "Le
Procurateur de Jude" in _L'tui de nacre_.

Among critical studies of Josephus as an historian the most striking
works are:

Schlatter, _Zur Topographie und Geschichte Palstinas_ (Stuttgart,

Bloch, _Die Quellen des Flavius Josephus_ (Leipzig, 1879).

Nussbaum, _Observationen in Flavius Josephus_ (Gttingen, 1875).

Destinon, _Die Chronologie des Josephus_ (Kiel, 1880) and _Die Quellen
des Josephus_ (1882).

Bchler, A., _Les Sources de Josphe_, R.E.J. xxii. and xxiv., and _The
Sources of Josephus for the History of Syria_, J.Q.R. ix.

Holscher, G., _Die Quellen des Josephus_, etc. (Leipzig, 1904).

For the relation of Josephus to the Bible and Jewish tradition, the
following monographs may be consulted:

Duschak, _Josephus und die Tradition_ (Vienna, 1864).

Olitzki, _Flavius Josephus und die Halacha_ (Berlin, 1885).

Schlatter, _Die hebrischen Namen bei Josephus_ (Gtersloh, 1913).

Grnbaum, _Die Priester-Gesetze bei Fl. Josephus_ (1887).

Poznanski, _Ueber die religionsphilosophischen Anschauungen des Fl.
Josephus_ (Berlin, 1887).

The apologetic works of Josephus are especially dealt with by:

Friedlaender, M., _Die Geschichte der jdischen Apologetik_ (Vienna,

Mller, J.G., _Des Fl. Josephus Schrift gegen den Apion_ (Basel, 1877).

Gutschmid, _Kleine Schriften_, iv. (Leipzig, 1893).

The work of M. Thodore Reinach, _Textes des auteurs grecs et romains
rlatifs au judaisme_, is a very useful collection of the pagan accounts
of Jewish life which Josephus was seeking to refute.

Among general appreciations of Josephus, there may be mentioned those

Edersheim, in Smith and Wace's Dictionary of Christian Biography.

Foakes-Jackson, in the Jewish Review, iv.

Margoliouth, in his edition of Whiston's translation.

Niese, in the Historische Zeitschrift, lxxvi.


Ant.: _The Antiquities of the Jews_.
B.J.: _The Wars_ (Bellum Judaicum)
C. Ap.: _Against Apion_ (Contra Apionem)

Book of the day: