Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary

By Nystrom, David | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary


Nystrom, David, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Vol. 10: Against Apion. By John M. G. Barclay. Leiden: Brill, 2007, Ixxi + 430 pp., $199.00.

This book represents a significant scholarly achievement. The richly detailed commentary is the first on Against Apion ever to appear in English. The translation is based upon a new critical edition of the Greek text, the first in more than a century. The sophisticated analysis of the cultural, historical, and rhetorical aspects of Against Apion heralds a growing vibrancy in Josephus studies after years of near-somnolence.

There is an enigmatic quality about Josephus. Born to an aristocratic Jewish family, he spent a good portion of his life in Rome enjoying the favor of the Flavian emperors. A general on the Jewish side in the war of AD 66-70, he became something of a quisling after his capture, serving as an interpreter for the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem. Despised by many Jews, he labored to defend the Jewish cause before the Romans, even while posing as a pro-Roman propagandist. Proud of his skill as an historian, he smarted under the charge that his field of study was unworthy. His four works, Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, Against Apion, and Life, are varied in tone and at points appear to contradict each other. Perhaps the most important literary figure of the Flavian age, only two or three other Roman authors seem to know of him. For centuries Josephus was valued not for any reason that met his own design but as a source for information about Jesus and other features of pious NT interpretation. By late antiquity his reputation enjoyed a rising tide. In the half-century before Luther some twenty Latin printings of his works were published. His fortunes began to ebb in the early modern period, and the last two centuries have not been kind to Josephus. The most recent German translation of his Antiquities is a century old, and the figure is twice that for the Italian. Parts of the regal Loeb translation at seven decades are similarly long in the tooth. Three Greek editions date from the last years of the nineteenth century, and only the 1889 Niese long survived. The tide began to turn again some twenty years ago, as a spate of dissertations and several edited volumes of high quality have appeared, most seeking to lodge Josephus within the context of classical and in particular Flavian studies. Since 1996 the Münster Josephus project led by F. Siegert and H. Schrechenberg has labored to produce a new critical edition of the works of Josephus, and Barclay's translation is based upon the work of the Münster team. The volume under review is part of the International English Josephus project, an ambitious endeavor launched by and under the direction of Steve Mason.

Josephus wrote Against Apion to combat an anti-Jewish tract written years earlier by the Roman grammarian Apion. During the early years of the first century riots broke out in Alexandria as a result of the attempt by Alexandrian Jews to gain increased rights from the Emperor Caligula. Claudius put a stop to the unrest when he issued stinging rebukes to both sides. Apion had stitched together slanderous claims about the Jews put forward by earlier authors, including the charge that the Jews were descendants of a group of leprosy-ridden Egyptian slaves who practiced human sacrifice and the worship of animals.

Josephus, Barclay maintains, had an unenviable task in Against Apion. Anti-Jewish feeling in Rome was high in the aftermath of the war. The Flavians fanned these flames by tapping into the rich tradition of Roman imperial sensibilities, a pastiche of attitudes headed by xenophobia and the presumption of cultural superiority. In such a climate the recycled charges put forward by Apion found a ready target. Barclay places Josephus within this Roman context, first by deftly illumining the complex socio-cultural landscape in which Josephus operated and second by examining the rhetorical strategies Josephus pressed into service. …

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