Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.47

Mark Andrew Brighton, The Sicarii in Josephus's Judean War: Rhetorical Analysis and Historical Observations. Early Judaism and Its Literature 27.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.  Pp. xiv, 184.  ISBN 9781589834064.  $26.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Dmitry Bratkin, St Petersburg State University (

[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

This book is a revision of the author's University of California (Irvine) dissertation and shares every benefit and drawback of this genre. One has to be cautious when writing (or reviewing) a new piece of scholarly work in this field as it is vast and dominated by a number of competing disciplines and approaches, each of which provide a particular bias. Moreover, the scholarship on Josephus is an industry in itself so that any evaluation of one's predecessors is selective by necessity. This makes any historiographical survey a difficult and uncomfortable list of details and authors. However, M. A. Brighton is fully aware of those hidden traps and steers his ship safely and convincingly through the troubled sea of Josephus and his world.

In the author's own words his aim is to 'provide a holistic study of the Sicarii in "The Judean War"' (p. xiii). In order to do this Brighton focuses mainly on all those passages 'where the Sicarii are explicitly mentioned or where their presence and activity must be inferred from the context' (ibidem). Each of those is 'analyzed for its rhetorical elements, and then literary and historical conclusions are presented' (ibidem). One may perhaps find it a bit audacious to draw historical conclusions from a literary analysis, but in this particular case it is fully justified by the mere fact that Josephus is our almost unique source on the subject and the first Greek author ever to use the term itself.

The book opens with the survey of scholarly studies concerning the Sicarii in Bellum Judaicum (Chapter 1; pp. 1-21). The author divides his forerunners into two main areas depending on their approach, namely whether the scholars were aiming to locate the Sicarii within their historical setting or were focusing upon Josephus' representation of them. Thus, individual approaches are marked as historical or literary. The former includes Emil Schürer (quoted from the 1890 English edition), Martin Hengel, Solomon Zeitlin, Yigael Yadin, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Sidney Hoenig, Shimon Appelbaum, Otto Betz, Morton Smith, Richard Horsley, Martin Goodman, Baila R. Shargel and Yael Zerubavel. The latter approach is represented by O. Michel and O. Bauernfeind, Valentin Nikiprowetzky, Helgo Lindner, David Ladouceur, Shaye Cohen, Tessa Rajak on her own and in cooperation with Jan Willem van Henten, Menahem Luz and Honora Chapman. Although the presentation of each scholar's opinions is understandingly compressed, it is entirely full-bodied. The author then justifies the need for a new study, showing that none has ever placed the Sicarii firmly within the structure of Bellum Judaicum, which calls for an examination of chiasmus and irony.

Chapter 2 (pp. 23-47) describes various contexts of Bellum Judaicum, namely: a) literary, showing the place of Josephus within Graeco-Roman historiography with its stock themes, phraseology and literary influences as literary tools employed by Josephus, discussing in particular stasis terminology and Polybian motifs, along with irony and figured speech (in which Brighton follows the approach of Steve Mason); b) thematic, explaining Josephus' subject in relation to Flavian propaganda and/or Jewish apologetics with a short survey of scholarly opinions; c) the date and unity of Bellum Judaicum, concluding that there is no compelling evidence to separate the last book from the rest of the work and dating the entire seven-volume work between 75 and 81; d) audience, suggesting that Josephus addressed Bellum Judaicum to Roman Jews as well. Brighton emphasizes the role and significance of the Jewish community of the city of Rome as his intended audience.

The author then passes on to his major task. Chapter 3 (pp. 49-92) deals with the presentation of the Sicarii in books 1-6, both in passages which mention them explicitly (2.254; 2.425; 4.400; 4.516) and in those where the presence of the Sicarii is directly implied or may be legitimately inferred from the greater context of Bellum Judaicum (2.117-8; 2.408; 2.433-48; 2.652-54; 4.503-8). Brighton sets out a standard outline for every passage to be studied (p.50): I. Evidence for inclusion in the study (where applicable); II. Immediate context (what precedes and what follows the narrative, how it fits into the context and how the immediate context might be outlined); III. Description of the activity of the Sicarii; IV. Word studies (mainly, terminology used and background); V. Book context; and, finally VI. Conclusions for each particular narrative.

In general, Brighton follows Mason's idea of stasis as cultural concept in Bellum Judaicum. His analysis is both sound and stimulating. The only point I would like to criticize is the section on the meaning of the word sicarius / σικάριος . I feel that something is missing here, as sicarius is not merely a word in Josephus to be studied, but a legal concept with its own particular origin, the statute by which it was introduced (Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis), and development, not to mention that the issue was itself part of the legal concept of homicidium. One would expect at least a short introduction on this issue. Ulpian, our main source on the Lex Cornelia de sicariis, is not mentioned nor the relevant passage from his De officio proconsulis 7 (=D. 48.8), let alone the discussion of banditry as seen in Roman law. This might seem even more disappointing as we find no reference even to the relevant section of Martin Hengel's Zealots (pp. 46 ff), who has provided a standard collection of sources and literature, and whose opinion M. A. Brighton eventually sought to challenge. Although congregational partitions never reach heaven, that between the disciplines of classics and Roman law still seems to.

Chapter 4 (pp. 93-140) is the longest in the book and, perhaps, the most interesting. The author is challenged by the fact that in a number of particular narratives of the last book of Bellum Judaicum (those of Masada, 7.275, 297, 311; Egypt, 7.410, 412, 415; cities around Cyrene / the Catullus narrative, 7.437, 444) the Sicarii are the protagonists and are treated with noticeably less criticism than in the earlier books. 'The structure of book 7 reveals that episodes about the Sicarii displace the Flavians and their triumph' (p. 93). From the discussion of the overall arrangement of book 7 Brighton proceeds to provide detailed examination of each major narrative mentioning the Sicarii in that book. This is the most valuable part and will rescue the volume even in the eyes of the severe critic who finds the conclusions rather challenging.

And indeed they are, both in terms of Josephus' literary presentation and its historical evaluation. The literary presentation of the Sicarii in Bellum Judaicum, as Brighton concludes on pp. 141-144, connects them most clearly to stasis as major theme of Bellum Judaicum, like a number of other rebel groups. Yet, 'while the latter fight also against the Romans, the Sicarii are shown to fight exclusively against their own people'. Josephus, as Brighton shows, seems to be rather careful about naming them explicitly 'only when they kill their own people or when they confess to these crimes'. As they become worse oppressors than the Romans themselves, it is appropriate that they self-destruct at Masada. Yet their role within the narrative is not limited to a negative rhetorical purpose. On the contrary, Brighton argues that in the narrative they illustrate the limits of Roman power, providing Josephus with the opportunity to emphasize the motif of divine punishment and God's authority. Brighton then shows that Josephus has carried out his intention to avoid belittling the Jews who fought against Rome. With the Sicarii being 'little more than two-dimensional criminals deserving punishment', the Masada narrative allows them to develop into a nobler image of those who voluntarily submit themselves to divine (rather than human) punishment. It was not Roman power and/or menace of capture that brought them to their fate, but anagke. The ultimate goal of Josephus was to remind his Jewish readers that God was still in control and they were to remain faithful to the covenant.

The historical assessment section (pp. 144-150) follows that on literary presentation as the historical conclusions are largely drawn in the light of the literary evaluation of Bellum Judaicum. Brighton challenges the assumption that the Sicarii were a branch of the Zealots and, following his interpretation of Josephus' narrative, links them to a rather broad category of 'bandits in general'. This is partly supported by the fact that the only identifier for them was their method of assassination, while in the narratives which take place outside Jerusalem they are described as in general similar to any other violent bandit group. Yet it is more likely that in the later parts of Bellum JudaicumJosephus uses the word as a term for those Jews who, for certain political reasons, fought against their fellow Jews. This leads Brighton to the conclusion that 'Sicarii' describes 'more than a person using a dagger in an urban environment'. Their clear Latin name with no earlier usage in Greek or Jewish literature must have certainly come from the Romans, before being adopted as a label by the Sicarii themselves and remaining in use for a possibly decade or two after the great revolt.

Brighton then asks whether they were a historically identifiable group and, if so, what were their links with the clan of Judas, known as the Fourth Philosophy. He challenges the classical opinion of Hengel and the more recent one of Sivertsev, opting for a number of mundane clan interests and ambitions rather than any philosophical or ideological justification to form a basis for the activities of the Sicarii. Nor did those begin or end with the emergence of the famous leaders of Judas' clan. Brighton arrives at the conclusion that the Sicarii were not a clearly marked-out group united by a uniform code of conduct or opinion. Since the term sicarius itself would essentially allow for a broader use, it became a label to marginalize one's political opponents, similar to the way 'terrorist' is used today. The Sicarii were distinguished from other bandit gangs and terrorists not only by their method of swift and stealthy acts of violence against their fellow Jews, but by their target victims as well, those who shared similar pro-Roman opinions. However, as Brighton suggests, it was not until the rise of Menahem and especially Eleazar that the Sicarii became a recognizable group which used the radicalized slogan 'No Lord but God' as a pretext for violence against their countrymen in particular. This, in turn, suggests that the label 'Sicarii' was used 'not primarily to describe a group of people but to marginalize and condemn certain types of behaviour'.

The volume ends with the Greek text of the major relevant sections of Bellum Judaicum (2.433-48; 7.323-36; 7.341-88; 3.362-82) with the author's English translation.

The Society of Biblical Literature as the publisher did their job marvelously with misprints almost extinct, yet in the index of biblical quotations (of all places!) one is surprised to find reference to 'Luke-Acts 5:33f 21:38) instead of the correct Luke 5:33 and Acts 21:38.

M. A. Brighton has clearly written a book to be read and used. His assessment, both literary and historical, is refreshing and challenging. Yet the evidence he relies upon in order to draw his historical conclusions would satisfy only the scholar who, like me, is already inclined to accept his opinion. A harsher critic would point out that, although Josephus is our major source, one ought to examine his information against the wider background of parallel evidence, insofar as it is available, before making any sort of generalization. This is obviously a drawback of the dissertation genre itself, which expects the author to put a new spin while imposing limits that force him to leave out much of what would normally be desired in a monograph like this. Still, it is a valuable contribution to the literature on Josephus. Brighton has managed to fill an obvious gap that existed in our knowledge and assessment of Josephus.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 04:19:31, Monday, 27 September 2010