Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.25

Steve Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins: Methods and Categories.   Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2009.  Pp. xx, 443.  ISBN 9781598562545.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Livia Capponi, Newcastle University (

This book collects various papers that were previously published in not easily accessible places. These papers have been rearranged by Mason in three parts, the first on the interpretation and historical use of Josephus, the second on Judean society, and the third on Christian origins and the Gospels. The concern for method and categories is present throughout the book. It is a lucid reappraisal of the earlier scholarship on these subjects, and its clarity and lucidity make it an extremely useful tool for both students and scholars in ancient history.

The book comprises eleven chapters. Chapter 1, “Josephus as Authority”, explores the character of Josephus’ narratives, and questions the problem of testing Josephus against other kinds of evidence. He argues that Josephus’ narratives are useful above all if we look at them as “efforts at communication with real audiences”, in other words, as a product of Flavian Rome. Chapter 2 investigates the identity of the audiences of Josephus both at Rome and outside, and shows that Josephus “wrote in the first instance - without precluding secondary and tertiary readerships - for a sympathetic or at least tractable audience in his adopted home city of Rome” (p. 47). Although this audience included some fellow-Judeans, Josephus wrote with special concern for Greeks and Romans in the capital. Mason interestingly reconstructs how Josephus’ works were published, through a combination of oral recitation and distribution of partial drafts, and how this communicative process and the network of interested associates (such as, for instance, King Agrippa II) helped Josephus to shape his narratives. Chapter 3 looks at the taste for elusive language and the subtle irony of Josephus in communicating with Roman audiences, in spite of the constraints of the imperial power, and argues that much of Josephus’ flattery of the Flavians would have been understood ironically by his first audiences. The praise of Titus’ clemency presents some cracks, and must be read as a portrayal of Titus’ disastrous naiveté contrasting with the Judeans’ clever tactics. For Mason, Josephus used his favored position at court to engage in a “safe criticism” of the emperors, while also striving to defend his people from post-war hatred. Chapter 4 faces the general problem of extracting historical facts from Josephus, with a critical survey of techniques that are often used, such as the method of “contradictory evidence” or reading against the grain. The abundant historical evidence in Josephus’ narratives invites us to test it against various historical backgrounds. The study of Josephus’ audiences, of his irony, and of the historical context of his works is particularly promising, because we have a wide range of independent evidence concerning Flavian Rome. In other, less documented cases, we must be content with formulating hypotheses.

Chapter 5 opens the second Part on Judean society and first-century history. It tackles the basic problem of the historical categories of “Judea” and “Judeans” and demonstrates that a word which is so easily used (and abused), that is, “Judaism”, was employed extremely rarely, and meant something else. The Greco-Roman world knew no category of religion, no -isms, denoting religious allegiance, and no “Judaism”, thus we should try to align modern categories with those actually used by the ancients. The word Ioudaios or Iudaeus should be translated as “Judean”, as Judeans understood themselves as an ethnos, a nation associated with a place and its customs, no matter how far, or how long, they had been away from Judea. Consequently, Judean law, tradition and custom (not “Judaism”) must be understood as a cultural complex very different from belief. Chapters 6 to 8 are devoted to a topic that Mason had first approached at the time of his PhD thesis, that is, Pharisees and Essenes, both as philosophical schools and as narrative actors. Chapters 6 and 7 analyze in detail Josephus’ treatment of the Pharisees and demystify the current opinion that this sect plays an important role in Josephus. In fact, the chapters argue that the Pharisees play a small, supporting role in Josephus’ narratives. Mason rejects the theory that the Pharisees attracted fuller attention in the Jewish Antiquities because of Josephus’ endorsement of them as a new, post-70 elite and argues that, on the contrary, Josephus limits discussion on the Pharisees (when he does not depict them as demagogues) and has a general interest in ignoring them. Josephus’ schematic sketch of the three philosophies of Judaism is a display piece for his erudition, and functions as a narrative diversion, but says nothing about Josephus’ own view of the groups. Chapter 8 does something similar with the Essenes and puts in doubt the still-dominant orthodoxy that Josephus based his second-hand report on the Essenes on the information contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls found near Qumran. Mason suggests that the Essenes described by Josephus, depicted in a generic, utopian-Spartan way, cannot be the sectarians documented by the Dead Sea Scrolls. The same kind of reasoning may be applied to the descriptions of the Essenes in Philo, Pliny and Dio.

Part 3 deals with Christian origins. Chapter 9 surveys a crucial term for early Christian communities, euangelion “Announcement”, which is usually translated as “Gospel” and is assumed to have been shared by more or less all followers of Jesus. On the contrary, Mason argues that Paul does not invoke the term as a common basis with his readers, but uses the term with specific reference to his gentile mission, so that it turns out to be his Announcement. This interpretation explains Mark’s embrace of the term, in contrast to the hesitation of Matthew, Luke and John. Only the third generation began to use the term in a proto-catholic sense. Chapter 10 applies this broad model to the interpretation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans as an urgent and vehement message sent to defend his much-maligned Announcement (Rom 1:16) before the most prominent Judean-Christian community in the world; it is as a substantially new Announcement. He is thus disinclined to use the language of euangelion for what the readers have already believed. For Mason, this letter presupposes a quintessentially Judean-Christian audience, in spite of the references to Gentiles in the opening and closing sections.

Finally, Chapter 11 applies the same sorts of methodological concerns to the two-volume Luke Acts. It questions the meaning and function of the presentation of the Pharisees and other leadership groups, such as the Sanhedrin, the high priests, and the Sadducees, in that work. Josephus wrote the only non-Christian narratives of the time that mention the groups in question, and thus, a comparative analysis with Josephus may throw light on Luke’s portrayal. Obviously, the two have radically different views: while Josephus is an enthusiastic supporter and a spokesman of the Judean aristocracy, and looks on the common people with a mixture of pity and contempt, Luke criticizes both the Pharisees, as teachers who were blind to the people’s needs, and the aristocratic, Sadducean, God-denying high priests, who first opposed, then arrested and executed Jesus. Both Josephus and Luke, however, remarkably agree on some basic assumptions (and these agreements are striking if we consider that Luke was familiar with the later volumes of Josephus’ Antiquities). These assumptions are: 1. The chief priests and the council had a supreme control of national affairs: they had security forces at their disposal, tried capital cases and executed offenders, but they also had to take into account the popular sentiment, which was often mediated by the Pharisees. 2. The Sadducees rejected any idea of life after death and consequently the notion of post mortem rewards; they also opposed any extra-biblical elaboration on angelology and demonology accepted by the Pharisees. 3. Both Josephus and Luke understand the Pharisees as a school that occupied a middle ground between the chief-priestly aristocracy and the masses. They were often able to change the council’s decisions though they constituted a minority in this council. The common people who had little to do with chief priests treated the Pharisees as authoritative teachers. However, in the face of certain popular leaders and militants who fired up the revolt (in Josephus) or Jesus of Nazareth (in Luke) even the Pharisees failed to maintain the people’s complete confidence.

This fascinating collection challenges many of the common assumptions about Josephus and about many important historical and historiographical problems. It offers new, lucid and illuminating interpretations of many vexed questions, and is impressive for both theoretical sophistication and clarity of exposition. It will certainly serve as a useful reference point, and a stimulus for any future research on these endlessly compelling topics.

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