BMCR 2012.08.24

Sculpting idolatry in Flavian Rome: (An)Iconic Rhetoric in the Writings of Flavius Josephus. Early Judaism and its literature, 33

, Sculpting idolatry in Flavian Rome: (An)Iconic Rhetoric in the Writings of Flavius Josephus. Early Judaism and its literature, 33. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. xiv, 226. ISBN 9781589836228 $29.95 (pb).


“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” declares the second commandment (Exodus 20:4, KJV). But how strictly did Hellenized Jews living in the Roman Empire interpret this commandment while living in a world saturated with statuary and artistic images? To what extent did their cultural milieu influence their interpretation of this commandment, and how did it affect their often uneasy interactions with their conquerors? These are the questions that Jason von Ehrenkrook approaches in this insightful revision of his University of Michigan dissertation, using Josephus, a Hellenized Jew turned distinguished Roman citizen, as his point of departure and main source of evidence for Jewish attitudes towards images during the Second Temple period.

Nineteenth and twentieth-century studies of Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman world have largely presumed an aniconic culture.1 By contrast, more recent scholarship has identified a distinct category of Jewish art in the ancient world, suggesting that the prohibition on images was interpreted to apply only within the religious sphere.2 Ehrenkrook’s study contributes to the scholarship on the relationship of art and Hellenistic Judaism by complicating this binary division. Examining the approaches to art and imagery in Jewish written sources ranging from Josephus to Old Testament apocrypha and inscriptions, he argues that far from having a consistent interpretation of the second commandment, the relationship of first-century C.E. Jews to the injunction against images was fluid and nuanced, varying by region of the Empire and, in the case of the Jews in Judaea, also dependent on their relationship with the Romans. It is within this larger context that Ehrenkrook then places the admittedly negative references to statues and art in the works of Josephus himself.

In the first chapter, “Reading Idolatry In(to) Josephus,” the author provides an overview of recent scholarship on the relationship between art and Judaism in Classical antiquity, and criticizes the use of Josephus as evidence in support of the argument for a very strict interpretation of the second commandment in Second Temple Judaism. Ehrenkrook states emphatically, “Moreover, and herein lies the primary focus of this book, very few have considered the extent to which the portrait of aniconism that emerges from Josephus’ narratives is even a reliable indicator of the actual situation” (2). Rather, far from presenting an accurate picture of Jewish views on the subject, “Josephus’ writings, and in particular his discourse on the Jewish resistance to images, bear the unmistakable imprint of his Roman context” (19). In the remainder of the chapter, he provides a brief survey of Josephus’ works and tumultuous life, as well as the lengthy process by which Josephus, so long disliked for his turncoat ways, finally recovered respect as a writer and a historical source in the twentieth century. While not contributing to the main argument of the book, this section provides helpful context for a reader less familiar with Josephus than with ancient Judaism.

The second chapter, “Jewish Responses to Images in Cultural Context,” provides a survey of written and archaeological sources reflecting the Jewish perspectives on the visual arts throughout the Roman Empire, but with a special focus on Jerusalem. In continuing to dismantle the argument for Jewish opposition to images, Ehrenkrook argues that the absence of statues in the archaeological record of Second-Temple Jerusalem should not be taken as reflective of the Jewish attitudes at large, as the numismatic evidence from the period, for instance, is filled with figurative images. A survey of epigraphical evidence throughout the Diaspora shows, furthermore, that contemporary Jews outside of Jerusalem were certainly not averse to dedicating honorary statues not only in public places, but even in synagogues. More tenuous is Ehrenkrook’s inference from archaeological evidence dating long after the Second Temple period – the elaborately decorated third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura Europos — that no prohibition of images existed in this locale earlier as well. The final part of the chapter looks to three of the Old Testament apocrypha – the Epistle of Jeremiah, Vita Adae et Evae, and the Wisdom of Solomon, to consider the different Jewish perspectives on the powers of figurative images and, therefore, the need to be wary of them.

Building on the background overview of the first two chapters, the remaining three substantive chapters of the book turn to the Josephan corpus. Chapter three, “The Second Commandment in Josephus and Greco-Roman Jewish Literature,” provides a close reading of Josephus’ references to the second commandment, and concludes that Josephus had a specific meaning in mind when reading the injunction against images: “… the second commandment does not proscribe images in general, but divine images and, more specifically, iconographical representations of the God of the Jews” (78). In the second half of the chapter, Ehrenkrook’s impressive command of both the literary and the archaeological and material evidence continues to be on display, as he surveys references to the second commandment both before and after 70 C.E., with the conclusion that similarly to Josephus, other sources as well interpret the second commandment to ban images as objects of cultic worship.

Chapters four and five are the most literary of the book, and present a switch in methodology from the earlier portion of the book. Chapter four considers “Sculpture and the Politics of Space in Bellum Judaicum,” arguing that in the Bellum Judaicum, Josephus refers to sculptures to create a clear map of sacred space and secular space. In the case of the Jewish sacred space, this means the exclusion of statuary from the sacred space, and its inclusion in the secular spaces. The opposite applies in the case of Greek and Roman sacred and secular space, which sets the Jews and their view of space as diametrically opposite to that of their conquerors. Ehrenkrook convincingly connects this demarcation of space through statuary to authority and power. For instance, rulers can choose to abuse power by violating the sacred space of the Jews by including statues therein.

Chapter five turns to “Idealizing an Aniconic Past in Antiquitates Judaicae,” and situates the topic within the Greco-Roman antiquarian traditions. Ehrenkrook argues that Josephus’ aversion to the language of iconography even in the description of the creation of the first man in the likeness of God, is actually Roman to the core, as seen from the connection between piety and aniconism that is drawn in Greek and Roman antiquarians.

The final chapter, “The Poetics of Idolatry and the Politics of Identity,” is the shortest in the book, and largely summarizes and combines the conclusions of the individual chapters. Ehrenkrook also develops further his argument in the previous two chapters that Josephus’ emphasis on Jewish aniconism ultimately served to portray the Jews in the most sympathetic and relatable light possible to the Roman audiences, which would have idealized the notion of their own aniconic past.

Two brief appendices appear in the back of the volume: a list of the statuary lexicon in the works of Josephus, and a table of references to the second commandment in Josephus. Finally, separate indices of ancient and modern authors follow the bibliography. The use of footnotes for references throughout the book made this endnote-averse reader happy.

Overall, Ehrenkrook has provided a well-written and original contribution to the study of both Josephus and first-century C.E. Judaism. Some quibbles, however, can be made about the organizational structure of the book. Most notably, after the overview of Jewish attitudes towards images in chapter two, chapter three had a déjà-vu quality to it. The two chapters could have been consolidated, as at least the second half of chapter three would have served as a useful introduction to chapter two. Second, it seems astonishing that a book so heavily reliant on archaeological and visual evidence does not include a single reproduction of an image, although, obviously, quotations from written sources abound throughout. Finally, the brevitas of the concluding chapter makes it seem rushed and, well, inconclusive.


1. Cf. Kalman Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton University Press: 2000) and Margaret Olin, The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (University of Nebraska Press: 2002), for the argument that the perception of Greco-Roman Jews as aniconic is a modern myth, minted in nineteenth-century Europe.

2. Exemplary of this more recent trend is L. I. Levine’s article “The emergence of art, architecture and archaeology as recognized disciplines in Jewish studies” in Martin Goodman (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (2002: 824-51), and Steven Fine’s Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World. Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge UP: 2005). It is significant also to bear in mind, however, Jaś Elsner’s concerns about separating the categories of “Jewish Art” and “Christian Art,” and his argument that the two often overlap — cf. Elsner, “Archaeologies and Agendas: Reflections on Late Ancient Jewish Art and Early Christian Art” JRS 93 (2003): 114-28.