Reading the First Century: On Reading Josephus and Studying Jewish History of the First Century

In contemporary scholarship on the works of Josephus, Daniel Schwartz ranks among the chief authorities. His bibliography includes Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (WUNT 60; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992) and the forthcoming (and eagerly awaited) Brill commentary on Antiquities 18-20. In his most recent publication, Reading the First Century, Schwartz seeks to demonstrate that a careful reading of Josephus’s writings (as well as many other Judeo-Christian and Roman sources) may help to improve our understanding of the social and historical developments in Palestine and elsewhere during the first century CE.

As Schwartz notes in the preface, rather than “just” reading texts, we can in fact—through a method which he characterizes as “philological-historical” (vii)—move behind them to the historical reality that they depict. Schwartz recognises that recent scholarship on Josephus has called into question the usefulness of his works as sources of information on ancient historical events—a view promulgated for instance by Steve Mason to whom Schwartz frequently refers. In response to such criticism, Schwartz maintains that modern historians might indeed benefit greatly from a reading of the works of Josephus and other ancient authors and an understanding of the testimony they (in Schwartz’s opinion, at least) bear to “what really happened” (x) in the first century CE. In order to do so, he presents a comprehensive thematic analysis in six chapters. He mainly draws from Ant.18-20 and the second book of Jewish War as well as from a wide range of other ancient writings covering the same period.

The first chapter (“Introduction: Who Needs Historians of the First Century CE?”) is divided into three main sections and a conclusion, and serves as a general introduction to (and defense of) Schwartz’s applied methodology. As in the preface, so too here Schwartz addresses the concerns raised by sceptics such as Mason who have maintained that studies of Josephus’s writings primarily serve to increase our understanding (and dare one add, appreciation) of the literary capabilities of this particular ancient author. In response, Schwartz notes how “even those who hold we should read Josephus as evidence for Josephus himself assume that we can know something—in fact, quite a lot—about him and his historical context” (4, emphasis original). This chapter also provides the theoretical basis for Schwartz’s use of source criticism in the remaining part of the book. For instance, he notes how studies on Josephus may benefit greatly by being compared to the works of other ancient authors and that Josephus himself seems to have relied heavily on a variety of written sources. Although Josephus’s use of such material is most easily detectable in Ant. 1-13 (on the period already covered in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, the Letter of Aristeas, and 1 Maccabees), Schwartz maintains that external sources are also discernible in the remaining part of the Antiquities as well. Indeed, Schwartz devotes an entire chapter to this particular topic (ch. 4). The remainder of the first chapter provides further comments on Schwartz’s methodology alongside four so-called “test-cases” taken from various passages in the Antiquities and Life, several of which are also touched upon in subsequent chapters.

The second chapter (“Beneath the Text: What Text Shall We Read?”), comprising three main sections, deals extensively with the issue of text-criticism. Schwartz cites a number of examples drawn from several different ancient works, including the Community Rule XI, 9-11 (1QS, referred to by Schwartz with the somewhat dated title, “Manual of Discipline”) and, of course, the writings of Josephus. One particularly interesting observation Schwartz makes (based upon a reading of Ant. 18.827 in context with 18.89) is that in 37 CE Gaius Caligula refrained from appointing an immediate successor to Pilate as governor of Judea (47-49). Throughout this chapter, Schwartz demonstrates clearly his own capacities as a careful and meticulous reader of ancient sources. Somewhat surprisingly, this chapter lacks any concluding remarks or a summary (70).

The third chapter bears the title, “Within the Text: Meaning in Context,” and is likewise divided into three main sections (sadly, here too with no conclusion). In this chapter, Schwartz argues that Josephus’s use of specific terms and topics must be assessed within their larger literary context. Thus, he notes how Josephus’s reference to demonic intervention in Life 420 is connected to the notion of divine intervention, a recurring theme in his works (73-74). Of particular interest is the analysis of the motif of stasis (civil strife; 79-82). Here, Schwartz notes that Josephus’s reference to this phenomenon in Ant. 13.299 is significantly more restrained than in the parallel passage in J.W. 1.67, which leads him to posit that “in the Antiquities, [Josephus] is not as willing as he was in his War to discuss fighting among Jews, and that he cut short a story (which he himself told in the War) that filled this point out” (80). On the basis of his analysis, Schwartz concludes that in the Antiquities as a whole, Josephus has deliberately tried to tone down the (apparently problematic) topic of internal Jewish strife—a reticence that he shares with the author of 2 Maccabees and is therefore something that is characteristic of what Schwartz typifies as “diasporan historiography” (82).1 In the final part of this chapter, Schwartz points out that some actions reported by Josephus resemble literary topoi more than actual historical events. This is for instance the case in his account of the destitute woman, Miriam, who during the siege of Jerusalem was forced to kill, cook, and eat her infant son (J.W. 6.201-213). Based upon his analysis of this passage, Schwartz states that “all in all . . . perhaps we should not expect there to be much factual truth in Josephus’s report about Miriam’s cannibalism” (89). To a sceptic (such as this reviewer), this then inevitably provokes the question, How do we know for sure if there is after all any factual truth to any part of Josephus’s narrative. What are the criteria by which we as readers can judge the validity of any historical account? Schwartz for one seems to maintain that it is possible to (clearly?) separate fact from fiction.

The fourth chapter (“Behind the Text: Josephus’ Use of Sources”) consists of four main sections and provides, as the title suggests, a treatment (in just 15 pages) of Josephus’s use of sources. A surprisingly short section (4.2) bearing the title “Where is Josephus’ own voice?” is only a single paragraph long. While it might have been intended as a short introduction, as a reader one longs for further elaboration of this important point. The remainder of the chapter argues that Josephus’s phrasing in certain passages seems to betray that he is quoting directly from his source. As an example of this, Schwartz points to Ant. 20.144 where Josephus promises to provide later on an account of the disappearance of Drusilla (daughter of Herod Agrippa I) and her family at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Yet, the Antiquities concludes with an account of the outbreak of the war in 66 CE—a fact that Josephus according to Schwartz must have been well aware of at the time of writing (97). Similarly, some of the apparent chronological problems in Josephus’s narrative (such as his account of Vitellius’s multiple visits to Jerusalem in Ant. 18.89-122) may stem from his use of different sources (100-104). Some scholars have criticised Josephus for being both inconsistent and sloppy in his use of sources.2 Schwartz’s analysis demonstrates that at times Josephus does appear to be rather careless. Yet, he nevertheless maintains that “our job is not to give Josephus marks but, rather, to learn how to read him as an historian” (100, also 22, 119, 133).

In the fifth, penultimate chapter (“Among Texts: Rubbing Sources Together”), which consists of six sections including both an introduction and a summary, Schwartz compares the account provided by Josephus in his writings (the Antiquities in particular) with similar accounts in the other ancient sources, including the gospels, Philo, and rabbinic literature, as well as various epigraphic material and the works of the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio. As Schwartz rightfully notes, such comparisons prove highly useful for our understanding of Josephus’s literary endeavour and capabilities. For when such different sources are rubbed together, “sparks may fly in all sorts of directions” (110). For instance, Schwartz notes how there is an apparent discrepancy in the dating of Quirinius’s census in Luke 2 compared to Josephus’s dating of it in Ant. 18.1-2. Schwartz (unsurprisingly) sides with the latter position and posits that Luke might have been moved by theological considerations to place the census in Herod’s lifetime rather than that of his son, Archelaus, as Josephus does in Ant. 18.1-2 (114-5). Where Schwartz truly excels is in his extensive and highly illuminating comparisons of parallel passages in Ant. 18-20 and J.W. 2 (148-166). In noting the many differences and inconsistencies, Schwartz clearly demonstrates his own keen comprehension of Josephus’s writings. One only wishes that he had devoted much more space to this particular topic! But such in-depth analyses will hopefully constitute the backbone of his forthcoming Brill commentary on Ant. 18-20.

The final chapter (“Above the Texts: The Big Picture”) consists of a single section on the motif of the conflict between religion and politics with examples drawn from the works of Philo, Acts, and the Babylonian Talmud. The chapter is intended to put into perspective a topic that also permeates Josephus’s writings. Although his analysis is both interesting and persuasive, it is somewhat puzzling that Schwartz should choose to conclude his book in this manner rather than by way of a general conclusion to the book as a whole.

Overall, Schwartz’s literary style is lucid, compelling, and surprisingly personal. For instance, in certain parts of his analysis, he refers to his own teaching experience and to his own Jewish upbringing (13 and 82, respectively). Furthermore, the sheer scope of his undertaking is highly admirable. The individual chapters are all brimming with examples, the quantity of which is both dazzling and overwhelming. Sadly, the book as a whole suffers immensely from a severe case of too many subdivisions. For Schwartz tends to divide his findings into small subunits each focusing on a particular problem and each furnished with one or more examples. This leads to a fragmented and at times outright confusing structure that does not yield itself particularly well to a light read. Luckily, the three indices (an index locorum, an index of modern authors, and an index of places, names and topics) and Schwartz’s frequent use of cross-references all help the reader in navigating the comprehensive structure of the book.

By his own admission, Schwartz is immensely indebted to the Italian classicist, Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987), whose article, “The Rules of the Game in the Study of Ancient History” (1975), is included in an appendix (181-90; the translation is done by Schwartz himself)—and to whom the book as a whole is dedicated. In his preface to the article, Schwartz admits how “much of what I have offered here, with reference to the first century and Josephus, can be read as footnotes exemplifying Momigliano’s views” (181). A few quotations from Momigliano’s essay (taken out of context, of course) may be considered particularly revealing of Schwartz’s understanding of his own task as a historian: “The historian’s freedom to be arbitrary ceases when he is involved in interpreting a document. Every document is what it is, and it must be treated according to its own characteristics” (188); the historian “is an interpreter of the reality of which the sources are indicative signs, or fragments” (189); he “transfers that which has survived back into a world which did not survive” (ibid.); and he “understands the dead as he understands the living” (ibid.). Such statements seem to correspond well with Schwartz’s own belief in the usefulness of the writings of Josephus and other ancient authors with regard to the “specific information” they offer us “about ancient people and episodes” (viii). It ought to be mentioned however that such assumptions have been challenged in recent decades by several influential, primarily Anglo-American, scholars. Spurred by the writings of Hayden White (to which Schwartz himself briefly refers in a single footnote in the appendix, 181-82 n. 4), notable classicists such as A. J. Woodman and T. P. Wiseman have called into question the trustworthiness of the ancient Greco-Roman historians (and by extension, their usefulness as reliable sources).3

As part of his comparative analysis of the War and the Antiquities, Schwartz argues that Josephus in the latter work no longer appears as one who has come straight “off the boat from Judea” (82, 160). Instead, he seems to have become accustomed to his new life as a diasporan Jew living and writing in Rome. Schwartz’s use of this diaspora motif—and the accompanying use of the (presumably, self-coined) term “diasporan historiography”—is interesting and might eventually prove to be a significant contribution to studies on Josephus. Yet, it does require further fleshing out and refinement if is to become a mainstay in broader scholarly circles. To this end, Schwartz’s analyses (in the fifth chapter in particular) constitute an important initial step.

Through his penetrating discussion, Schwartz presents a clear and comprehensive example of how one could use the information provided by a number of ancient authors in order to paint a better and broader picture of central events in the first century CE. The complex structure of the book and the sheer volume of examples might prove challenging to some readers (especially to those with little to no previous knowledge of Josephus). Yet, Schwartz’s scholarly merits are undeniable, just as his style and manner of presentation are both compelling and admirable. As such, the book proves to be a significant contribution to contemporary scholarship on Josephus and the history of the first century CE.

1 This term is fleshed out in the last section of the fifth chapter (146-66). On Josephus’s life in the diaspora, see for instance Tessa Rajak, “Josephus in the Diaspora,” in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome (eds. J. Edmonson, S. Mason, and J. Rives, eds.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 79-97.

2 E.g., S. J. D. Cohen, Josephus in Galilee and Rome: His Vita and Development as a Historian (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 276.

3 E.g., A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies (London: Croom Helm, 1988); T. P. Wiseman, “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity,” in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (eds. C. Gill and T. P. Wiseman; Liverpool University Press, 1993), 122-46.

Martin Friis, University of Copenhagen

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