BMCR 2022.05.19

Greek writers and philosophers in Philo and Josephus: a study of their secular education and educational ideals

, Greek writers and philosophers in Philo and Josephus: a study of their secular education and educational ideals. Studies in Philo of Alexandria, volume 9. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. x, 352. ISBN 9789004391932 €138,00.

This monograph aims at identifying the explicit references to Greek writers and philosophers in the vast corpora of two Greek-speaking, Jewish authors, namely Philo of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius. While lists of quotations and literary allusions have previously been compiled for Philo,[1] Josephus has hardly been studied from such a literary perspective, in comparison to Philo. The project is thus ambitious and promises new insights into different Jewish engagements with Greek culture. Philo and Josephus naturally lend themselves to this kind of comparison, as they were both active in the first century CE and produced a vast output in Greek, which is largely preserved. The differences between them, one a historian raised in Aramaic in Jerusalem, the other a philosopher from Greek-speaking Alexandria, is moreover likely to illuminate different ends of the spectrum. Aware of the potential of his study, Koskenniemi contextualizes his work in broader questions of Greek education among Jews and hopes to extrapolate from Philo and Josephus information regarding the Jewish communities of Alexandria and Jerusalem. The literary quotations in these two authors serve him as an index of Greek education among Jews in the respective communities. Unfortunately, the monograph does not meet the ambitious expectations implied in the project. Some of its conclusions are banal, such as the insight that Josephus, as a historian, quotes more historians than philosophers, while Philo, as a philosopher, quotes more philosophers. More seriously, however, the monograph relies on a superficial knowledge of the ancient sources, which is based to a disproportionate degree on dictionary entries, and brims with errors and conceptual flaws.

Initially, a brief overview of the monograph, which is structured very clearly. It opens with an introduction surveying the research and highlighting the role of the gymnasium as a platform of Greek education (pp. 1-20). Chapter two is devoted to Philo, with subsections on Greek poets, Classical drama and philosophers, and a conclusion concerning Philo’s educational ideals and secular education among Alexandrian Jews (pp. 21-151). Chapter three is devoted to Josephus and subtitled “it is difficult to transplant an old tree”. This chapter discusses Josephus’ quotations of poets, philosophers and historians, with conclusions about the Greek language and Classical education in Jerusalem (pp. 152-291). Koskenniemi reaches the overall conclusion that Philo was “deeply embedded in the Greek culture and it is clear that he had received a very good secular education, almost certainly in a gymnasium” (p. 149). Josephus, on the other hand, “never took this path” of Greek education, because his parents belonged to the “traditionalistic segment” of society, which opposed Herod’s cultural program (pp. 289-90). He consequently quotes the poets far less than Philo and expresses more criticism about them. Greek philosophers are hardly mentioned. The historians, whom he does cite, appear only in later writings and were thus not part of his education in Jerusalem. They may have been mediated by Jewish predecessors. Josephus continued to have problems with the Greek language and never reached the level of expertise we see in Philo.

To start with Philo, the division between poets and dramatists is perplexing, given that Philo introduces the largest quotation from Euripides, a unique fragment of 16 lines from the Syleus, immediately after praising the poets. “Witnesses to the freedom of the righteous are poets and prose writers, on whose maxims Greeks and barbarians alike are raised virtually from the cradle, thus improving their characters, and reforming all such things in their souls as have been twisted because of wrong upbringing and lifestyle. See then what kinds of things Heracles says in Euripides” (Quod omnis probus 98-9). Koskenniemi’s decision not to discuss Euripides in the section on poets thus misses the point Philo tries to make and overlooks the intellectual developments of the first century CE, when this tragedian assumed a central role as poet, philosopher, and educator.

Moreover, the comments on Philo’s quotations are rather minimal and sometimes even misleading. The extremely important fragments from Euripides’ Syleus, which are attested nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, receive a surprisingly brief treatment of two pages which are mostly filled with the quotations themselves (pp. 53-54). Koskenniemi notes that Philo quotes the four lines of one of these fragments (TGrF 5.687) in two places with one slight variation, which he attributes to the flexibility of memory, and explains that satyr plays like the Syleus were intended to mock tragedy. He concludes: “Philo was seemingly very fond of this kind of play too, which he often quotes in other works too. Of course, he was not averse to ridiculing Gentile gods, if he could do so with the help of a master of classical drama. However, his main goal was to show that a wise man is free from the authorities, and this is the function of these quotations” (p. 54). Given that Philo enthusiastically praises Heracles as a role model for the free person, one who demonstrates parrhesia and rejects social conventions, it is surprising that Koskenniemi stresses Philo’s proclivity to mock the Greek gods. The dichotomy he sets up between Judaism and paganism is his, not Philo’s. In contrast to Clement and other Christian writers, Philo does not use Euripides for invective against the Greek tradition, but rather as a mouthpiece of philosophy. Koskenniemi’s remarks on Euripides resonate with his comments on the theater in general, which he explains via Augustine: “although chronological factors should not be overlooked, it is perhaps wise to observe that Augustine writes very critically of the theatre in general” (p. 65).

Koskenniemi’s treatment of Zeno the Eleatic is even more misleading (pp. 82-3). He rightly starts by saying that this pre-Socratic philosopher must be distinguished from Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, but then adds “that it is often not easy to decide which Zeno is meant” in Philo’s writings. Philo, however, clearly distinguishes them by calling the founder of Stoicism simply “Zeno,” because he was the more famous, and the pre-Socratic philosopher “Zeno the Eleatic” (Prob. 53, 106). It is rather perplexing then that a “Zenonian saying” (Ζηνώνειον) in Prob. 97 is tentatively identified with Zeno the Eleatic: “the Zeno in the following passages seems to be the philosopher from Elea” (p. 82). This saying as well as the other “Zenonian saying” in Prob. 160 clearly reflect Stoic thought and must refer to Zeno of Citium. This kind of error seems to derive from a general lack of proficiency in the Classical sources which is also reflected in a disproportionate reliance on articles from Der Neue Pauly. In the bibliography there is hardly any page without numerous references to DNP. On p. 302, for examples 11 out of 24 bibliographical items are DNP entries; on p. 312, 17/28 items are DNP entries. The average proportion amounts approximately to 5/20-23 items. Another German dictionary which features prominently is the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum. One would at least have hoped for a greater variety of available dictionaries. For the philosophers, the Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, edited by Richard Goulet, would have been the best choice.

The treatment of Josephus is based on the problematic assumption that all his quotations from Greek authors can and must be explained via the state of Greek education in Jerusalem. The subtitle of the chapter, as we have seen, is in the indicative: “It is Difficult to Transplant an Old Tree.” The assumption that Josephus was an old man when reaching Rome flatly contradicts the fact that he settled there in his early thirties, already fluent in Greek, as demonstrated by his earlier diplomatic trip to Nero and Poppaea (Josephus, Life 13-16). Moreover, Koskenniemi’s conclusion that Josephus’ quotations of Classical Greek authors do not appear in his earliest work, the Jewish War, but only in his later writings, mostly in the Contra Apionem from the end of his career, should have alerted him to the possibility that Josephus consulted the Roman libraries and developed intellectually in the prime years of his literary activity in the capital of the empire. His intellectual profile can hardly be reduced to the effects of his Kinderstube. Steve Mason, in works that are not quoted in the bibliography,[2] has amply shown Josephus’ active involvement in Roman salons and intellectual circles. This context would certainly have had an impact on the Greek authors engaged with by Josephus. Occasionally, Josephus even alludes to the fact that the books he consulted can be checked by his readers, apparently in the libraries of Rome (C.Ap. 1.182). Koskenniemi’s suggestion that Josephus can have transmitted quotations only from Greek authors known to him through Jewish predecessors not only lacks any evidence but also looks like a desperate attempt to locate Josephus squarely within an exclusively Jewish context.

Despite Koskenniemi’s preconceptions, he addresses an important question that could have led to significant new insights: did Josephus know Latin and consult Latin sources (as suggested by Louis Feldman)?[3] On p. 2 n. 4, Koskenniemi states surprisingly briefly that the “Latin authors mentioned by Josephus are Titus Livius, Asinius Pollio and perhaps Vespasian, whose hypomnemoneumata [sic] were written either in Latin or Greek.” This issue is resumed on p. 170 where a reference for Livy is provided, with the emphasis that Josephus “perhaps owes this reference to his assistants.” Pollio is again mentioned without reference or discussion. Rather than examining the evidence, Koskenniemi cites Thackeray, who was skeptical about Josephus’ knowledge of Latin and concludes that “it is thus not probable that Josephus alluded to Latin poets. However, it should not be overlooked that in the imperial period it was purely coincidental whether an idea was expressed in Latin or in Greek” (p. 171). Pollio is mentioned again on p. 234 in connection with Strabo, who quotes him, and on pp. 246 and 276 in connection with Josephus. On none of these occasions does Koskenniemi state that Asinius Pollio is not explicitly quoted by Josephus. He instead refers the reader back to p. 234, apparently drawing the readers’ attention to the footnote, where treatments of Pollio by Menahem Stern in his Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism and in DNP are mentioned. In n. 437 on p. 276, Koskenniemi moreover mentions that Pollio hosted Herod’s two sons Alexander and Aristobulus during their stay in Rome (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.343). This motif would appear to be a key which could have led to questions regarding his role in the Roman circles subsequently frequented by Josephus. Louis Feldman and Giuseppe Zecchini, in works not cited in the bibliography, discussed Pollio’s pro-Jewish attitudes and the pro-Jewish intellectuals associated with the first public library in Rome, which he founded and directed for many years.[4] Asinius’ public position as an ex-general and politician under Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius, as a Roman historian and head of a central library, as well as his strong monarchic and pro-Jewish tendencies, render him a prime candidate for a thorough investigation into Josephus’ possible familiarity with his works, which were still used by Plutarch, but later got lost.[5] Such an investigation would have to go beyond a treatment of explicit quotations and tackle the far more complicated question of literary dependence or intellectual influence. It can only be hoped that such an investigation will be taken up in the future.


[1] Hans Leisegang, index to Philo’s works in Leopold Cohn and Paul Wendland, Philonis Alexandrini Opera quae supersunt, vol. 7.1 (Berlin: De Gryuter, 1926); David Lincicum, “A Preliminary Index to Philo’s Non-Biblical Quotations and Allusions,” SPhilA 25 (2013), 139-67.

[2] Steve Mason, Life of Josephus. Translation and Commentary (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2003); id., “Flavius Josephus in Flavian Rome: Reading On and Between the Lines,” in A. J. Boyle and William J. Dominik (eds.), Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 559-89; id., “Josephus as a Roman Historian, in Honora Howell Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers (eds.), A Companion to Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 89-107.

[3] Louis H. Feldman, Studies in Josephus’ Rewritten Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1998), esp. 295-6.

[4] Louis H. Feldman, “Asinius Pollio and his Jewish Interests,” TAPA 83 (1953), 73-80; Giuseppe Zecchini, “Asinio Pollione: dall’attività politica alla riflessione storiografica,” ANRW 2.30.2 (1982), 1265-1296.

[5] Christopher B. R. Pelling, “Plutarch’s Method of Work in the Roman Lives,” JHS 99 (1979), 74-96; id., “Notes on Plutarch’s Caesar,” RhM 127 (1984), 33-45.