- The Image of the Jew in Flavius Josephus’ Paraphrase of the Bible
In Michael Grant’s “Introduction” to Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, we read this remark with regard to Tacitus’ History, “Tacitus, for all his superlative merits, colours and patterns his facts.” This, by contrast with Suetonius’ “dead-pan . . . corrective with some personal touches.”
Everyone who writes about Josephus notices that he too colored and patterned his facts and added many personal touches. Spilsbury’s book provides a perceptive assessment of Josephus’ coloring of the biblical history. The author’s assessment of Josephus’ personal touches displays no trace of Foakes-Jackson’s splenetic, “when he means to be pious he is frankly repulsive” (Josephus and the Jews, p. 16). It is refreshing to read Josephus treated without the contempt some take as a precondition for serious study.
Spilsbury, like Steve Mason, has studied Josephus as a source rather than as a composite of sources tendentiously edited. He accepts Josephus as “an original and developed historiographer, rather than a mechanistic compiler.” He was a devout Jew on a mission “to define a particular way of being Jewish in Rome” as well as a writer thrusting an apologetic in the face of cultured despisers of the Jews. Spilsbury assesses Josephus’ place in the developing midrash of his day as “a uniquely personal contribution to the tradition,” rather than as “a sterile compilation of tradition.” He sees in Josephus an awareness of “Jewish voices espousing alternate visions of Jewishness.”
The author chose not to get deeply into the tricky question of Josephus’ biblical text. He acknowledges the fruit of others’ studies of this question, demurring himself because “the sheer size of the task would have made it impracticable.” A more important reason hinges on Spilsbury’s interest in Josephus as a source: “Josephus would not have expected [his non-Jewish readers] to be aware of the details of the Bible.”
Spilsbury calls attention to Josephus’ alteration of the character of some persons in the Bible story. It may be that Josephus sometimes confused biblical persons with the same name. For example, with reference to the northern King Jehoash (p. 191), he observes that Josephus calls him a good man, whereas the Bible calls him an evil man, citing II Kings 13:11. Josephus may have confused King Jehoash of Israel with King Jehoash of Judah (II Kings 12:1: “And Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days.”). In this place Josephus observes that the northern king took over the name of the King of Jerusalem, perhaps unwittingly assigning as well the good character of one to the other. This kind of error creeps into the writing of the finest historians when there is a cast of many characters, some with the same names.
Spilsbury’s assessment of L. H. Feldman’s case for Josephus’ use of classical models in reshaping biblical charcters is less than enthusiastic. While accepting the [End Page 111] “general contours” of Feldman’s argument, he states that “Feldman is prone to over- play his hand in this regard with the result that numerous anomalies of interpretation arise.”
Spilsbury discovers more balance between Hellenization and the importance of the law in Josephus’ shaping of various biblical heroes. I am inclined to suspect that my esteemed Doktorvater’s estimate of classical influence on Josephus stems from his profound knowledge of the classics, while the lenses through which Spilsbury reads Josephus are tinted by his background in New Testament studies. No scholar can avoid hearing echoes of the sounds that have taught him to hear.
Spilsbury discovers a ten-fold theme in Josephus’ image of the Jews in his biblical paraphrase: “1. The Jews are an ethnic entity that must be understood in the light of its particular history. 2. The Jews are a virtuous people. 3. The Jews have a profound knowledge of the true God and stand in intimate relationship to this God. 4. The Jews...