The Image of the Jew in Flavius Josephus' Paraphrase of the Bible

By Robertson, Stuart | Shofar, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Image of the Jew in Flavius Josephus' Paraphrase of the Bible


Robertson, Stuart, Shofar


The Image of the Jew in Flavius Josephus' Paraphrase of the Bible

In Michael Grant's "Introduction" to Robert Graves' translation of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, we read this remark with regard to Tacitus' History, "Tacitus, for all his superlative merits, colours and patterns his facts." This, by contrast with Suetonius' "dead-pan...corrective with some personal touches."

Everyone who writes about Josephus notices that he too colored and patterned his facts and added many personal touches. Spilsbury's book provides a perceptive assessment of Josephus' coloring of the biblical history. The author's assessment of Josephus' personal touches displays no trace of Foakes-Jackson's splenetic, "when he means to be pious he is frankly repulsive" (Josephus and the Jews, p. 16). It is refreshing to read Josephus treated without the contempt some take as a precondition for serious study.

Spilsbury, like Steve Mason, has studied Josephus as a source rather than as a composite of sources tendentiously edited. He accepts Josephus as "an original and developed historiographer, rather than a mechanistic compiler." He was a devout Jew on a mission "to define a particular way of being Jewish in Rome" as well as a writer thrusting an apologetic in the face of cultured despisers of the Jews. Spilsbury assesses Josephus' place in the developing midrash of his day as "a uniquely personal contribution to the tradition," rather than as "a sterile compilation of tradition." He sees in Josephus an awareness of "Jewish voices espousing alternate visions of Jewishness."

The author chose not to get deeply into the tricky question of Josephus' biblical text. He acknowledges the fruit of others' studies of this question, demurring himself because "the sheer size of the task would have made it impracticable." A more important reason hinges on Spilsbury's interest in Josephus as a source: "Josephus would not have expected [his non-Jewish readers] to be aware of the details of the Bible."

Spilsbury calls attention to Josephus' alteration of the character of some persons in the Bible story. It may be that Josephus sometimes confused biblical persons with the same name. For example, with reference to the northern King Jehoash (p. 191), he observes that Josephus calls him a good man, whereas the Bible calls him an evil man, citing II Kings 13:11. Josephus may have confused King Jehoash of Israel with King Jehoash of Judah (II Kings 12:1: "And Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days."). In this place Josephus observes that the northern king took over the name of the King of Jerusalem, perhaps unwittingly assigning as well the good character of one to the other. This kind of error creeps into the writing of the finest historians when there is a cast of many characters, some with the same names.

Spilsbury's assessment of L. H. Feldman's case for Josephus' use of classical models in reshaping biblical charcters is less than enthusiastic.

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