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A New Jerusalem: Flavius Josephus in Early America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2022

Kristofer Stinson*
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA


This article argues that the first-century Jewish historian, Titus Flavius Josephus, was of central importance to early American Protestants as they wrestled with how to construct a divinely upheld polity and with who would be included within it. By tracing the prefaces to the many editions of Josephus that were published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it becomes clear that many Protestant readers in America felt torn between two competing identities: Rome and Israel. Scholars of early America are familiar with both labels. But as many early Americans knew from Josephus, those images were not always complementary. In fact, as they pondered over the account of the decimation of the first Jerusalem at the hands of Rome, it became clear that there might be something antithetical in those ancient models. This article argues that Josephus's histories enabled Americans to hold together the tensions in their national identity and ancient imagination that envisioned the United States as both a new Rome and a New Jerusalem. As a foundation, Josephus breathed life and legitimacy into the developing American culture. By neglecting to account for Josephus in this era, scholars have overlooked one of the most pervasive stories that formed the character and understanding of American Protestantism.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History

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1 William Cooper, “The Promised Seed. A Sermon Preached to God's Ancient Israel the Jews,” August 28, 1796 (Philadelphia: 1796), 9, 4, 9. For the various printings, see America's Historical Imprints [database].

2 Cooper, “The Promised Seed,” 14, 15–16. For an overview of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, see Goodman, Martin, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (New York: Vintage Books, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially the prologue; and MacCulloh, Diarmaid, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Penguin, 2009), 106111Google Scholar.

3 Hadas-Lebel, Mireille, Flavius Josephus: Eyewitness to Rome's First-Century Conquest of Judea (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 1Google Scholar; Goodman, Martin and Weinberg, Joanna, “The Reception of Josephus in the Early Modern Period,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 23, no. 3 (2016): 168CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hadas-Lebel, Flavius Josephus, 228–229; and Blumell, Lincoln, “Palmyra and Jerusalem: Joseph Smith's Scriptural Texts and the Writings of Flavius Josephus,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2015)Google Scholar. As Robert McEachnie puts it, “Perhaps no other work by a non-Christian author influenced the development of Christians more than Josephus's The Jewish War.McEachnie, Robert, “Review of Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography by Martin Goodman,” Church History 90, no. 1 (2021), 160Google Scholar.

4 Feldman, Louis H., Josephus and Modern Scholarship (1937–1980) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 862CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hadas-Lebel, Flavius Josephus, 2. See also Martin Goodman, Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2019), especially the preface, ix–xi. For more on the myriad of subjects Josephus has shed light on, see Louis Feldman and Gohei Hata, eds., Josephus, the Bible, and history (Leiden: Brill, 1989), especially the introduction.

5 Wood, Gordon, “Prologue: The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution,” in Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, ed. Onuf, Peter and Cole, Nicholas (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 12Google Scholar; Winterer, Caroline, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 18Google Scholar; Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 24Google Scholar. For further discussion on the classical influence on early American thought and culture see Reinhold, Meyer, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Richard, Carl The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Shalev, Eran, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

6 Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 16, 134, 139; Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 1, 5; and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, “The ‘Divine Right of Republics’: Hebraic Republicanism and the Debate over Kingless Government in Revolutionary America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 66, no. 3 (2009). Shalev sees the models of Rome and Israel as largely “supplementary.” Focusing on Josephus, and the crucial history of the destruction of Jerusalem, however, helps scholars to think about the moments in which this cohesiveness was more tense. See Shalev, American Zion, especially chapter 1, pp. 15–49. See also Conrad Cherry, God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

7 Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, 555–556, 555; Heinz Schreckenberg, “The Works of Josephus and the Early Christian Church,” in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), especially 319–321; MacCulloch, Christianity, 92–93, 106–111.

8 Julian Weiss, “Flavius Josephus, 1492,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition (2016), 180, 181, 184. For more on the power dynamics at work in Josephus and the resulting ambiguity, see J. M. G. Barclay, “The Empire Writes Back: Josephan Rhetoric in Flavian Rome,” in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome (Oxford, 2005).

9 Gohei Hata, “A Note on English Translations of Josephus from Thomas Lodge to D. S. Margoliouth,” in A Companion to Josephus, ed. Honora Howell Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 415.

10 David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), especially the introduction, 1–12; Edwin Wolf II, “The First Book of Jewish Authorship Printed in America,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 60, no. 3 (1971), 233; and Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews in Two Books (London: 1719), 3, 4, 5, 6. For a more recent discussion on the connection between the works of Flavius Josephus and Joseph ben Gorion, or Josippon, see Saskia Donitz, “Sefer Yosippon (Josippon),” in A Companion to Josephus.

11 Josephus ben Gorion, The Wonderful . . . History of the . . . Jews (Boston: 1722). Israel and the Hebrew Republic have typically been portrayed in the historiography as primarily a model, with little emphasis on the ways Americans attempted to avoid reconstructing this specific ancient polity. For models and antimodels, see Carl Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), chapters 3 and 4. See also Shalev, American Zion.

12 Gorion, The Wonderful . . . History of the . . . Jews. This theme could be traced back to the early days of Protestantism in Martin Luther's interaction with The Jewish War. See Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Martin Luther and Flavius Josephus,” in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, 418.

13 Gorion, The Wonderful . . . History of the . . . Jews. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews in Two Books (1719), 5, 6. For debates around the nature of both revelation and canon during this era see David Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011).

14 Hata, “A Note on English Translations of Josephus,” 416.

15 Isaac Stiles, “A Prospect of the City of Jerusalem,” May 13, 1742 (Hartford, CT: 1742), 15, 16, 27; Hull Abbot, “The Duty of God's People to pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,” January 12, 1746 (Boston: 1746).

16 William Balch, “A Publick Spirit, as express'd in praying for the Peace and seeking the Good of Jerusalem” May 31, 1749 (Boston: 1749), 2–3, 7; John Davis, The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth Century Art and Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 15.

17 Nathaniel Robbins, “Jerusalem's Peace Wished,” June 1, 1772 (Boston: 1772), 5–6, 10, 14.

18 “Advertisement,” The New York Journal or General Advertiser, December 19, 1771; “Advertisement,” Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet or, the General Advertiser, May 30, 1774, 3, no. 136; “Advertisement,” Supplement to the Boston-Gazette, &c., September 12, 1774, no. 1013. For the American edition of the Bible, see Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

19 Hata, “A Note on English Translations of Josephus,” 416; and Flavius Josephus, The Whole Genuine and Complete Works of Flavius Josephus . . . also a Continuation of the History of the Jews by George Henry Maynard, LL.D (New York: 1792). For an example of poetry and an abridgement, see “Destruction of Jerusalem,” Essex Journal (Massachusetts: 1784); and B. Neave, An Abridgement of the History of Josephus (Norwich: 1785).

20 Josephus, The Whole Genuine and Complete Works of Flavius Josephus . . . also a Continuation of the History of the Jews by George Henry Maynard, LL.D, 629–630, 632.

21 “Miscellaneous Pieces: The completion of Prophecy, exemplified in the destruction of Jerusalem, a striking proof of the truth of Revelation,” The Repository of Knowledge, Historical, Literary, Miscellaneous, and Theological, May 31, 1801.

22 George Henry Holford, The Destruction of Jerusalem (Burlington, NJ: 1807), 126, 134.

23 Susanna Linsely, “Saving the Jews: Religious Toleration and the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews,” Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 4 (2014): 629–630, 642; Lincoln Mullen, A Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 181.

24 Hannah Adams, The history of the Jews from the destruction of Jerusalem to the present time (London: 1818), 89–90; and Thaddeus Mason Harris, Pray for the Jews! (Boston: 1816), 3. For a contextual overview of Adams, see Lawrence Peskin, “From Shylocks to Unbelievers: Early National Views of ‘Oriental’ Jews,” Journal of the Early Republic 39, no. 2 (2019), 284.

25 Dan Huntington, “The Love of Jerusalem, the Prosperity of a People,” May 12, 1814 (Hartford, CT: 1814), 8–9, 22–23; Joseph Field, “Prosperity Promised to the Lovers of Jerusalem” (Northampton, MA: 1816), 6.

26 For the transformation in the conception of historical time, see Eran Shalev, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), especially chapter 6.

27 Gutjahr, An American Bible, 63.

28 Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War of Flavius Josephus: a New Translation, by the late Rev. Robert Traill. Edited, with notes, by Isaac Taylor (Boston: 1858), v, vii.

29 Ibid., x (emphasis added), xi.

30 “Masada and its Tragedy,” The National Magazine; Devoted to Literature, Art, and Religion, November 1858.

31 For an excellent discussion on the role of history in shaping reality and belief, see Carson Bay, “Writing the Jews out of History: Pseudo-Hegesippus, Classical Historiography, and the Codification of Christian Anti-Judaism in Late Antiquity,” Church History 90, no. 2 (2021), 273–276.

32 Jonathan Sarna, “The ‘Mythical Jew’ and the ‘Jew Next Door’ in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Anti-Semitism in American History, ed. David A. Gerber (University of Illinois Press, 1986), 57–78. For examples of how Josephus was handled as a work of specifically Christian literature, see “Art. VIII.—Josephus and Apion,” The Methodist Quarterly Review, April 4, 1870; and Selah Meriil, “From the Sunday School Times: Flavius Josephus,” Friends’ Intelligencer, August 17, 1889.

33 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Anglo-Saxon Destiny and Responsibility,” in God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny, ed. Conrad Cherry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 297; and Ronald Reagan, “Transcript of Reagan's Farewell Address to American People,” New York Times, January 12, 1989. Even the few editions that did include new “introductions” concerned themselves with the authenticity of Josephus as a historian in response to German historicism, not with what readers should take away from his histories themselves. For example, see Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Wars of the Jews (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1915).