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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.
Like any good Greek historian, Josephus salted his BJ with rhetorically elaborate speeches in direct discourse in order to explore the psychological interior of important historical players and to provide insight into motivations for the characters' actions at critical junctures in the narrative. The earliest methodological statement about speech-writing in an historical narrative fairly describes Josephus' own method in the BJ. I refer of course to Thucydides' famous, if perennially debated and reinterpreted, declaration at the end of his so-called Archaeology:
Regarding the speeches which each speaker made either on the eve of war or when they were already in it, it has been difficult to remember with perfect accuracy the spoken words, both for me, of the speeches which I myself heard, being present, and for those who reported to me [speeches] given at different times and places; so that each speaker is made to say what seemed to me most essential for him to say, given the circumstances in each case, while I have tried to keep as close as possible to the overall intention of the actual speech.
Those who discard their weapons and surrender their persons, I will let live. Like a lenient master in a household, I will punish the incorrigible but preserve the rest for myself.
So ends Titus' address to the embattled defenders of Jerusalem in the sixth book of Josephus' Jewish War (6.328-50). It is the most substantial instance of communication between Romans and Jews in the work. Titus compares himself to the master of a household and the Jewish rebels to his slaves. Is this how we expect a Roman to describe empire? If not, what does it mean for our understanding of the politics of Josephus' history? The question is particularly acute given that this is not just any Roman but Titus himself: heir apparent and, if we believe Josephus, the man who read and approved this historical account. It is thus surprising that, while the speeches of Jewish advocates of submission to Rome such as Agrippa II (2.345-401) and Josephus himself (5.362-419) have long fascinated readers, Titus' speech has received little or no attention. Remarkably, it is not mentioned in any of three recent collections of essays on Josephus. This paper aims to highlight the rhetorical choices that Josephus has made in constructing this voice for Titus—particularly his self-presentation as master—and the interpretive questions these raise for his readers. It should go without saying that the relationship of this text to anything that Titus may have said during the siege is highly problematic. (Potentially more significant, but unfortunately no less speculative, is the question of how it might relate to any speech recorded in the commentaries of Vespasian and Titus that Josephus appears to have used as a source.) What we have is a Josephan composition that is embedded in the broader narrative of the Jewish War.
Josephus, the Judean general, Roman captive and Flavian protégé, devoted the last twenty-five years of his life, as a privileged resident in Rome, to the redescription of Jewish identity and to the strategic placement of his cultural tradition on the controverted map of the late first-century empire. After writing his delicately poised account of the Judean War, and the large-scale ‘autoethnography’ known as the Jewish Antiquities, his final and most intricate literary endeavour is his apologetic work, Against Apion. Here Jewishness is constructed and positioned in carefully nuanced dialectic with images of ‘Egyptian’, ‘Chaldean’, ‘Greek’ and (to some degree) ‘Roman’ cultural tradition. The rhetorical flamboyance of this piece and its predominantly polemical tone give Josephus considerable licence to manipulate the tropes that suit his argumentative needs. His eye-catching exordium and the opening vilification of ‘Greek’ historiography (1.1-56) start this treatise with a familiar antithesis between Eastern antiquity and the comparative youth and fickleness of the Greeks. But as the discourse develops we find Josephus deploying his considerable knowledge of the Greek literary and historical tradition to place his Jewish tradition both outside and inside ‘Greekness’, indeed also above (superior to) and behind (historically earlier than) what may be variously labelled ‘Greek’. What gives this manipulation of Greek historical and literary tropes particular interest is not only that Josephus writes explicitly as a Jew, and in defence of his own Jewish tradition, but that he does so in Rome, aware of how ‘Greekness’ may be variously bought and sold in the Roman market-place, ‘displayed or excoriated for its decadence’. It is within this triangulation of Jewish, Greek and Roman—the last always implicit if not explicit in Josephus' text—that the subject of Sparta becomes a particularly interesting topic of discussion.
Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Old Testament never to allude to God, and to refer to neither the Covenant, the sacred institutions of Israel, nor to Jewish religious practice. The book has long engendered a fascinated revulsion in many of its readers, not only for its notable lack (or writing-out?) of God, but also for its overt celebration of genocide and the dubious moral qualities of its protagonists. Luther famously wanted the book excised from the Christian canon altogether, and the nineteenth-century biblical scholar Heinrich Ewald declared that the story of Esther ‘knows nothing of high and pure truths’, and that on coming to it from the rest of the Old Testament ‘we fall, as it were, from heaven to earth’. Humphreys terms Esther one of the ‘most exclusive and nationalistic units within the Bible’, and for Anderson, writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the tale resonates horribly with twentieth-century history and ‘unveils the dark passions of the human heart: envy, hatred, fear, anger, vindictiveness, pride, all of which are fused into an intense nationalism’.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, on the other hand, placed the Book of Esther on a par even with the Torah, a sentiment echoed, centuries later, by Maimonides, who famously declared that when the Prophets and Hagiographa pass away, only Esther and the Law would remain. And this triumphant assertion of the scroll's worth is reminiscent of the attitude of Josephus, who specifically includes Esther in his list of the twenty-two Jewish records, and who devotes the extensive central section of AJ 11 to the Esther pericope. The dating, both relative and absolute, of the texts of Esther has been fiercely disputed, and need not concern us here; it should suffice to note that two extant Greek translations, or rather adaptations, of the Book of Esther—the Septuagint (LXX) and the highly variant Alpha Text (AT)—offer countless minor variations on the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), and insert six extended passages into the narrative.
The challenge to classicists to read Josephus ‘as literature’ is an awkward one, because it throws into relief the crooked, appropriative practices we undertake in the name of literary criticism. If Josephus' works are to be seen as ‘literature’—a category closely associated with specifically Hellenic literary ideals, in much of the ancient world as well as the modern academy—then we are also avoiding looking at them as documents of early Jewish cultural history or belief. ‘Literature’ is far from a neutral category.
Josephus would, however, have probably approved, at any rate up to a point. In the proem to the Jewish Archaeology—on which this article will focus—he promises a work of ‘universal usefulness’ (κοινή ὠϕέλειαν, 1.3), which will appear ‘worthy of study to the whole Greek world’ (ἅπασι…τοῖς Ἕλλησιν ἀξίαν σπουδῆς, 1.5). Unlike Against Apion, which denigrates Greek historiography in relation to Jewish and other near-eastern narrative traditions (see esp. 1.6-56), the Archaeology seeks to translate biblical discourse into a Greek-friendly register. In terms of communication, ‘universal’ necessarily means ‘Greek’, a point of which the translators of the Septuagint were aware (as much as Cicero and Paul). Moreover, the tralatitious language (Thucydidean ὠϕέλεια, Dionysian σπουδή) coupled with the direct allusion in the work's title to Dionysius' Roman Archaeology reinforce the already clear impression that Josephus is inscribing his project into the Greek cultural tradition, marking its intelligibility within the conceptual framework that we would call ‘literature’, and Josephus and his contemporaries called paideia. The Archaeology converts the fragmented and at times self-contradictory narrative of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) into a coherent chronological narrative, seeking to confer on it the legitimacy (as gentile Greeks would see it) of historical narrative.