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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2014

Simon Goldhill
King's College and Newnham College, Cambridge
Helen Morales
King's College and Newnham College, Cambridge


Josephus, cultural critic and chronicler of the Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73/4 CE), is one of the most polemical and compelling writers of the Roman Empire. He writes in Greek, as a Jewish leader of a revolt against Rome, who came over to the Romans. His extraordinary prose combines an extended self-justification, an explanation of Jewish culture to the Romans, through the medium of a culturally privileged Greek, and the riveting story of a failed rebellion against the dominant Empire of the Mediterranean, written now as an awkward insider of the corridors of power, recalling his own opposition to that power. Josephus, that is, writes on and through the boundaries of culture; if all history is written by victors, he writes as a defeated leader now with the triumphant new emperor: he crosses the boundary between victor and victim, insider and outsider. For the scholar interested in post-colonial writing, in cultural identity, in the rhetoric of self-fashioning, Josephus is a remarkable gift. What is more, the history he tells has powerful resonances today in the Middle East: it is he who gives us the authoritative account of Masada, the rocky desert fortress destroyed by the Romans and now a central icon of the state of Israel. The destruction of the Temple is a founding moment in the Jewish imagination, still rehearsed in ritual and political rhetoric. What more could one want from an ancient source? In 2003, Mary Beard invited us to imagine the euphoric reception classicists would give his work were it to be newly discovered today:

This is the kind of text that ancient historians and literary critics would die for. It is the kind of text that makes the study of Greco-Roman antiquity so much richer than that of almost any other ancient society. The kind of text we just can't get enough of.

Copyright © Aureal Publications 2007

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1. . See esp. Rajak, Tessa, Josephus: The Historian and His Society (London 1983; 2nd ed. 2002Google Scholar); Cohen, SJ.D, Josephus in Galilee and Rome: His Vita and Development as a Historian (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 8: Leiden 1979Google Scholar); Feldman, Louis H., Josephus’ Interpretation of the Bible (Berkeley 1998Google Scholar); Mason, Steven, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study (Leiden 1991Google Scholar); id. (ed.), Understanding Josephus: Seven Perspectives (Sheffield 1998Google Scholar); Mader, G., Josephus and the Politics of Historiography: Apologetic and Impression Management in the ‘Bellum Judaicum’ (Leiden 2000CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Schwartz, Seth, Josephus and Judaean Politics (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 18: Leiden, 1990Google Scholar). For further bibliography, see Schreckenberg, H., Bibliographie zu Flavius Josephus (1979Google Scholar) and Feldman, Louis H., Josephus and Modern Scholarship 1937–1980 (1984CrossRefGoogle Scholar), plus Steven Mason’s Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (PACE: which gives details of the Brill Josephus project.

2. . Lightfoot, Jane, ‘No Romans Here’, Times Literary Supplement April 19 2002Google Scholar. Lightfoot’s complaint is actually about Seth Schwartz’s chapter on rabbinic literature. She writes: ‘What is a piece on “being Jewish in a Greco-Roman city” really doing in a collection on “being Greek under Rome”?’ To think this is not to think hard enough about patterns of assimilation to dominant culture. Moreover, both Josephus and Philo were also the subject of chapters in the volume; it is not clear whether Lightfoot is also critical of their inclusion on the same grounds, or whether she considers rabbinic literature more Jewish in some way than the works of Josephus and Philo (if so, this is doubly prejudicial).