BMCR 2001.08.15

Josephus and the Politics of Historiography: Apologetic and Impression Management in the Bellum Judaicum. Mnemosyne Supplement 205

, Josephus and the politics of historiography : apologetic and impression management in the Bellum Judaicum. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 1 online resource (x, 172 pages).. ISBN 1417505982

That Josephus’ Bellum Iudaicum takes its place as part of a Greek or Greco-Roman historiographical tradition is no secret. The fingerprints of Thucydides, Polybius, and others can be seen repeatedly in the text. Conscious imitation of style, rhetoric, concepts, and presentation recurs again and again. Many scholars have seen the influence and the echoes. Mader does not break new ground here. But he seeks to push the point beyond previous treatments.

In M.’s view, Josephus does more than resort to occasional borrowings or inadvertent evocations. The historian has a definite agenda. Through deliberate intertextual allusions, Josephus systematically puts his readers in mind of classical models and subtly promotes his ideological ends. For M., Josephus appropriates Thucydidean techniques and patterns familiar to his audience to provide a fac,ade of rational analysis, while, in fact, conveying a partisan interpretation. Value judgments, therefore, come disguised as scientific diagnosis. The Bellum Iudaicum, in short, falls into line with its predecessors, as much a literary construct as a work of history, its polemical purposes paramount, screened by a veil of objectivity. M. detects Josephus’ debt to classical writers not only in formal and structural elements but in the adoption of their conventions to advance the indoctrination of his readership.

Most of the argument is unobjectionable, if not especially surprising. M. observes that Josephus regularly represses the religious motivation behind the Jewish revolt against Rome, ascribing unworthy objectives to rebel leaders, utilizing psychological explanations to discredit them, and justifying Roman action as carrying out the divine will (pp. 10-17, 52). To that end Josephus marshals Thucydidean analyses, particularly the accounts of the plague in Athens and the stasis in Corcyra, and Thucydidean dichotomies, like young/old, reasonableness/recklessness, word/deed, internal/external strife, thus providing an objective veneer for the excoriation of his Jewish enemies (e.g. pp. 56-66, 69-72, 101-103). Themes such as factional strife representing disease or pollution (pp. 135-146) can readily be found in classical authors as well as in the Bellum Iudaicum. Much of this has long been acknowledged.

M., however, goes further. He presumes that Josephus’ intertextual references would be immediately recognizable to his readers and that the evocation of Thucydides in particular would reassure them that his text supplies a detached narrative. Neither proposition is compelling. Establishing the first is vital for M.’s whole interpretation. But his effort to show that Josephus’ audience would be closely familiar with Thucydidean language and motifs confines itself to little over three pages (pp. 152-156) and consists essentially of quoting Josephus’ own comments about his anticipated readership. This is simply inadequate. As for the idea that readers of the Bellum Iudaicum, filled as it is with tendentiousness, bias, and polemic, would regard it as an objective rendering because of Thucydidean echoes is very hard to credit. M. does not even attempt to make a case for that presumption, but takes it for granted.

Many of the philological connections that M. finds are valuable and persuasive. There can be little question that Josephus adopts Thucydides’ language and formulations with regard to crisis situations, civil conflict, reversals of fortune, irrational behavior in times of stress, verbal manipulation and distortion. Here M. has added in welcome fashion to our grasp of Josephus’ techniques and has supplied real flesh to the bones of the generally brief scholarly treatments of Josephus’ adaptations of his predecessors.

Some connections, however, are strained and dubious. The parallels between Agrippa’s speech to the Jewish rebels and Thucydides’ account of divisions in Athens over the Sicilian expedition (pp. 25-27) are far from obvious. The idea that Ananus’ rallying of the populace against the Zealots owes something to Livy or other (unnamed) Roman historians (pp. 33-35) will convince few. Still more questionable is the association M. makes between Ananus’ castigation of the Jewish demos for its indifference and apathy and Demosthenes’ rousing of supine Athenians in the Olynthiacs and the Philippics (pp. 86-87). How many readers would have made that association? M. similarly strains credulity with the notion that Herod’s justification for war on the Nabateans derives from the Roman concept of bellum iustum (pp. 36-37). It is surely unnecessary to account for Josephus’ use of the term edeleazonto as a combination of Thucydidean and Polybian elements (p. 43). Other associations are comparably forced. The ascription of unrestrained avarice to Arab and Syrian soldiers in Roman ranks has very little in common with Diodotus’ speech against the death penalty in the Mytilenean debate (pp. 48-49). Josephus certainly knew and applied the Corcyrean stasis in Thucydides to his own text. But M. sees it there too often—as in the portrayal of John’s deceptive use of an oath (pp. 89-90). The analogy that M. discerns between Josephus’ laudatio of Ananus and Thucydides’ tribute to Pericles (pp. 99-100) has little to recommend it. The death of each man may have marked a turning point in the fortunes of their people, but this hardly makes for a compelling parallel. Josephus’ narratives of the virtues of certain Roman military men has analogies to accounts found in Caesar and Livy (pp. 119-120). But how likely is it that Josephus actually read such accounts—let alone that he consciously modelled his typology on particular episodes in Caesar’s Commentarii ? That is far-fetched speculation. Impiety is a theme of high importance for Josephus. And, of course, it has significant resonance in classical literature. It does not, however, follow that Josephus needed to have any familiarity with Herodotus, Ovid, or Lucan to dwell on that theme. When M. cites instances from the texts of such authors to elucidate the literary context of Josephus’ statements (pp. 126-127), are we to presume direct influence, general acquaintance, or simply inadvertent parallels? Surely a Jew did not need classical texts to absorb the concept of impiety.

This is a relatively brief monograph, which might have been shorter still. M. includes discussions which, though interesting in their own right, seem to have little to do with the overall argument of the book. This holds, for instance, for his treatment of the Zealots’ appointment of Phanni as High Priest (pp. 77-82) and for the series of vignettes on soldiers who exhibit their virtue on the battlefield (pp. 106-119). While these have some relevance to the thesis, the space devoted to them is not commensurate to their value for the book’s objectives.

M. professes to steer a course between those who regard Josephus’ Hellenization as relatively superficial and those who see him as a bald imitator of Thucydides (pp. 156-157). For M. the Jewish historian deliberately and calculatingly appropriates Thucydides to deliver the illusion of akribeia while advancing his own apologetic and propagandistic aims. The book delivers numerous subtle and sensitive interpretations of Josephus’ language and motifs. But it rests on fundamental premises that remain shaky and insecure.