- Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible
Professor Louis Feldman, perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of Flavius Josephus, here offers a major summary of his many years’ study of the interpretive work of the first-century historian. Known best for the Jewish War, which treats the Jewish revolt against Rome (66–73 CE), Josephus also wrote a major account of the whole of Jewish history up to the eve of the revolt, The Antiquities of the Jews. The first half of this twenty-volume work paraphrases scripture, and Feldman’s volume aims to illuminate the aims and procedures of that paraphrase. [End Page 186]
Feldman organizes his study into two sections. The first (pp. 1–220) offers a synthetic treatment of all the issues raised by Josephus’s paraphrase. The second (pp. 221–669) provides a series of case studies of individual biblical “portraits,” Josephus’s treatments of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, and Daniel. A comprehensive bibliography and detailed indices conclude the volume.
The introductory chapters display the kind of erudition and attention to detail characteristic of all of Professor Feldman’s work, and on each topic he engages in critical dialogue with the full range of contemporary Josephan scholarship. In Feldman’s analysis Josephus emerges as a careful historian, aware of the great traditions of Greek historiography, labeled by Feldman the Isocratean and Aristotelian. Although conscious of other attempts to paraphrase part or all of scripture, Josephus had no model for his whole enterprise, on which he exercised considerable originality. The biblical texts that he paraphrased probably included Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek versions. Whatever his texts, and precise identification is often difficult, Josephus felt free to modify them considerably, despite his promise not to do so (Ant. 1.5). Josephus also drew on extra-canonical books and early forms of rabbinic midrashic traditions. The intended audience of the Antiquities, explicitly addressed to Greeks and Romans, included Jews of the Diaspora as well.
The biblical history that Josephus produced displayed his biases as a priest and “prophet,” but it served above all apologetic ends. Feldman (Chapter 3) suggests that Josephus’s primary apologetic vehicle was his focus on the “great men” of Israelite history. The categories of Hellenistic encomia structure their portraits, and they appear to be endowed with both physical beauty and intellectual prowess, rendering them exemplary leaders. Each also exemplifies the standard moral values admired in the Greco-Roman world.
Feldman devotes a special chapter (Chapter 4) to the apologetic program of Josephus, recording not only the kinds of slanders to which Josephus responded but also the positive strategy employed to portray the Jews as favoring the kind of political arrangements that obtained in Rome. Josephus also appears sensitive to issues of Jewish nationalism, downplaying Messianic elements in scripture, and cautious about portraying Jews as engaged in proselytism.
The final introductory chapter (Chapter 5) catalogues various other devices and techniques used in the paraphrase. Josephus clarifies obscurities, explaines chronologi cal problems, cloaks the scriptural story in an elegant Greek diction and syntax, adds dramatic and romantic motifs, offers interpretive comments on history in line with Stoic beliefs, interjects psychologizing explanations for the actions of his characters as well as the occasional philosophical reflection. Despite Josephus’s comments on divine providence as a lesson to be learned from history (Ant. 1.14), his work downplays [End Page 187] the divine role in human affairs and focuses on the achievements of the human actors of Israel’s history.
The “portraits” of the second half of Feldman’s study illustrate the generalizations of the introductory chapters with painstaking attention to the details of Josephus’s account along with illuminating parallels from Greco-Roman and Jewish sources.
In a magnum opus of this sort there is much of value for any student of the history of biblical interpretation or of the encounter between Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions. Josephan scholars will argue about some of the technical judgments that Feldman has made, such as evidence for Josephus’s use of...